In the last decade, the memory “boom” has captivated Civil War scholars. This work, however, too often intimates that sparring over the meaning of the war occurred in a dominion of competing images, cultural representations, and metaphors. But for the war’s blue-coated survivors, memory was lived experience – an experience they could never forget, and one that northern civilians were helpless to understand.
One of the principal goals of When Billy Came Marching Home is to reorient the history of Civil War remembrance along a veteran-civilian axis. The categories fashioned by the historian David Blight to sort competing memories of our fratricidal war – what he called the “emancipationist,” “reconciliationist,” and “white supremacist” visions – were useful in explaining how the national narrative of the Civil War was segregated, but stopped well short of explaining how that same story was, from almost the very beginning, sanitized. The sanitization of the Civil War narrative, much like its segregation, has a troubling history.
It begins with the indifference and incredulity displayed by so many northern civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war. In 1867, for example, several one-armed soldiers who scraped out a living begging for spare change in New London, Connecticut, were ordered to vacate the city by Mayor Frederick Allen. Similarly, civilians in New York City groused about “veteran impoliteness” when confronted by panhandling ex-soldiers. In an impassioned speech on Boston Common, noted temperance advocate J.B. Merwin lamented that veterans were compelled to seek companionship and sympathy in saloons and grogshops.
We know too little about these confrontations and how they persisted into the late nineteenth century. Understanding these intra-sectional clashes may help clarify that Union veterans rarely ambled willingly down the road to reunion – and that the real force behind reconciliation was a civilian one with important consequences for blue-coated ex-soldiers and their legacies.