Review of Brian Matthew Jordan’s “Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War”

tags: book review, Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home

Murray Polner is HNN’s senior book review editor and a blogger.

Two photos in Brian Matthew Jordan’s “Marching Home” set the stage for his challenging, enlightening and lucid book which attempts to correct the accepted view of how Union veterans fared after the Civil War. The first depicts the triumphal parade of May 23-24, 1865, when 200,000 victorious Union veterans marched down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue but with Jordan’s cautionary caption: “As civilians lined the nation’s avenue, they cheered wildly—unable to understand that for the men in the ranks, this was no victory parade, but a funereal march.” The second photo illustrates an armless Pvt. William Sargent, one of 50,000 Union soldiers who lost one or more of their limbs.

Very few of the books written about the war have been centered on the ordinary Union veteran. Jordan offers an explanation: “Indeed, despite all that has been written about the American Civil War, Union veterans remain eccentric caricatures lurking in the unwarranted shadows of historical obscurity –as distant and unfamiliar to us as those who lived in post-Civil War America. Although a few historians have trailed the blue-coated armies home from Appomattox, none have penetrated the most intimate details of their lives.”

In this, his first book, with ninety-three pages of documentation derived in part from diaries, letters, reunions, and more, he essentially ignores the few historians who have written that demobilized soldiers returned home, settled down, and were rarely heard from again. Instead, he argues, the opposite was true. Far from the battlefield, war weariness had set in among civilians, while developing mass industrialization and white expansion westward prompted a different set of priorities. Moreover, draft dodgers, anti-war Democrats, Lincoln haters and businessmen who profited from the slave trade were elated at war’s end so their lives could once again resume unimpeded. Slavery was finished, the Union was preserved, and the war had supposedly taught the southern rebels a bitter lesson and as a result a growing number of northerners were now ready for reconciliation. Angry and resentful veterans, Jordan suggests, were often seen as an impediment to hopes and plans for the postwar future.

Some civilians were taken aback by the reappearance of so many ex-soldiers. In fact, as in all wars, many combat veterans, especially ex-POWs, had been “broken” and “couldn’t fend for themselves.” Jordan, who lectures in Civil War era studies at Gettysburg College, concludes that many veterans after “the shock of Shiloh, the carnage of Antietam and the horrors of the Wilderness were never the same.”

One wife wrote of her dread that her husband, possibly brutalized by so cruel and long a war, might strike out at her, sounding much like the ersatz alarms expressed when Vietnam veterans returned home and lurid films and newspaper articles created the false myth of drugged, violent ex-soldiers prowling our streets threatening good burghers.

Even as they often encountered indifference and hostility remembering became vital for veterans proud of their accomplishments. They wrote a striking number of personal memoirs, but also brigade, company, and regimental recollections aimed at recalling their great sacrifices and dead buddies. “Billy Yank” and his former comrades were “living in the shadow of the dead,” as one veteran wrote, highly critical of the general amnesia in the north and the revival of southern racism. “Are the servicers [sic) expected to forget their dead comrades?” More than sixty pro-veteran publications were created by veterans and their friends to argue their case for rehabilitative services, pensions, jobs, homes, and especially, recognition of their achievements.

The more people urged accommodating the defeated South, the more did Union veterans and their organizations remind northerners that their former enemy hadn’t learned anything. Feeling betrayed by politicians like Andrew Johnson and later those who withdrew Union forces in 1877 from occupation duties in southern states, unwilling to be ignored or decently honored, veterans began viewing themselves as a distinct bloc of brave men who had once fought for the nation. Veterans organizations sprang up, such as the Grand Army of the Republic—the American Legion of our era, but progressive for its time—which rejected reconciliation once they observed with utter distaste the enactment of the oppressive Black Codes in 1865-66 and through the ensuing decades former rebels wallowing in the Lost Cause while KKK and assorted night riders attacked freed slaves and their white sympathizers. It was the start of decades of racial misery for African-Americans, which historian Eric Foner has rightly called “homegrown American terrorism.”

Jordan offers many examples of veteran rage but one stands out, a perceptive retelling of the Jubilee celebration in 1913 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the epic battle at Gettysburg. While many outsiders were eager to believe the event marked the end of the gory North-South conflict, southern speakers mocked the victors, praising Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and even the controversial Robert Bedford Forest. The commander of the United Confederate Veterans declared that he and his comrades had failed only because of the North’s superior resources and “not because we were wrong,” leading a northern veteran to angrily reply, “It seems to me, as it seems too many, that Our Republic has been destined to convince the world that the language of the Constitution that ‘all men are born free and equal’ is not an idle boast.” 0n the final evening of the event a former confederate disparaged the memory of Lincoln and a fight began, after which seven old men were sent to a nearby hospital “in serious condition.” Two years later, in 1915—and only seventeen years after Plessy v. Ferguson -- the Grand Army of the Republic turned on D.W. Griffiths’s malicious and popular “Birth of a Nation,” denouncing it as diametrically opposed to what its members had fought for.

It would take many more decades for the wounds of war to heal. As the fever of the war years faded and veterans aged, their accomplishments were finally recognized and honored until the last Union veterans died, the subject of a moving tribute by Jordan. In the end, while Blacks suffered greatly from southern bigotry until the Civil Rights upheavals of the mid-1960s, and despite racist sympathies which persist in some quarters, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments remain. The struggle for the rights of all Americans, veteran and non-veteran, citizen and non-citizen alike, is endless and continues, a precious legacy of Union veterans.

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