Jones on Jordan and Rothera, 'The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans'
Brian Matthew Jordan, Evan C. Rothera, eds. The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020. xii + 338 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7198-1.
Reviewed by Jonathan S. Jones (George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, The Pennsylvania State University) Published on H-CivWar (January, 2021) Commissioned by Madeleine Forrest (Virginia Military Institute)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55444
Once I picked up this splendid edited volume, I simply could not put it down, and I suspect that other readers will echo the sentiment. The diverse essays in this collection investigate the lives of Civil War veterans, uncovering fascinating—and often haunting—new insights into the experience(s) of veteranhood for the men who survived America’s greatest military cataclysm.
Until recently, co-editor Brian Matthew Jordan observes, in standard histories of the Civil War, the ordinary soldiers who fought the war fell out of view after Appomattox. Generations of scholars assumed that veterans simply stacked arms and melted back into civilian life with ease. Over the last decade, however, historians have taken a fresh look at the postwar lives of Civil War veterans. This trend has gained considerable momentum as Civil War historians more broadly reconsider the consequences and periodization of the Civil War, and as Americans today reflect on the often tragic postwar experiences of modern veterans. An outpouring of new, innovative studies investigates facets of veteranhood ranging from politics, pensions, and fraternal organizations to disability, psychological trauma, and suicide.
In this aptly titled volume, editors Brian Matthew Jordan and Evan C. Rothera continue this trend, noting “the development of veteran studies and offer[ing] suggestions about how the literature could develop in the future” (p. 1). Accordingly, the fifteen essays featured in The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans span several genres—social, cultural, political, memory, medical, and disability history—and mine diverse, underutilized sources to give a wide view of veterans’ postwar activities and experiences. This genre-spanning approach is one of the volume’s main strengths, underscoring how the millions of men who fought in the Civil War did not share a singular, uniform postwar experience. The essays also draw much-needed attention to themes that were, until recently, largely overlooked in veterans’ studies, such as disability, war trauma, race, and veterans’ roles in political activism and contests over the war’s memory.
Jordan and Rothera identify four key themes apparent in the volume’s fifteen essays. First, veterans did not “hibernate” immediately after the Civil War, an argument previously made by Gerald Linderman. Indeed, “rather than shrinking into self-imposed reverie, veterans inserted themselves (and often rather forcefully)” into diplomacy, partisan politics, civic discourse, and memory making (p. 2). Veterans also actively sought out and maintained community with other old soldiers, creating veterans’ colonies out West, mutual support networks North and South, veterans’ memorial halls that dotted Gilded Age towns and cities, and newspapers catering to veterans. Third, as the wide range of themes addressed in the volume implies, the experiences of Civil War veteranhood were “multivocal” (p. 4). Jordan and Rothera stress that there was no typical postwar trajectory for old soldiers, even among Union or Confederate cohorts. Finally, veterans were practically obsessed with their legacies. They were active in all areas of memory work, arguing over their units’ roles in particular campaigns and forcing the reluctant public to grapple with atrocities committed in prisoner-of-war camps and by guerillas. Indeed, I see a fifth theme here, as well: veterans’ postwar lives were often dominated by their wartime experiences, with many men unable or unwilling to let the Civil War go, even when other Americans wanted to move on.
Several essays stand out. Sarah Handley-Cousins’s analysis of injured veterans and medical photography is a particularly engrossing and welcome addition to the growing literature on veterans, medicine, and disability. She convincingly argues that Union veterans used medical photography—images taken by army doctors, documenting gruesome injures for the purpose of medical knowledge—to secure pensions, no easy task. Rothera’s essay on veterans’ interest and involvement in the French invasion of Mexico is a must-read. Scholars have largely overlooked the significance of the French invasion in relation to the US Civil War. In contrast, Rothera convincingly argues, Union and Confederate veterans took a keen interest in the conflict in Mexico, which they interpreted as a continuity in the struggle between republicanism and slavery. Rothera’s study is both a compelling nail in the coffin of the hibernation thesis and a much-needed corrective for a major oversight in the historiography of the Civil War’s international dimensions. In line with recent scholarly emphasis on the Civil War in the West and “Greater Reconstruction,” Kurt Hackemer’s outstanding essay on Union veteran colonies in the postwar Great Plains provides a unique window into the coping mechanisms of traumatized veterans. Matthew Hulbert’s analysis of the ex-guerrilla Frank James’s struggles to put away violence after the war, Kelly D. Mezurek’s study of black US veterans in soldiers’ homes, and Rebecca Howard’s investigation of Union veterans living in postwar Arkansas likewise call attention to understudied areas. All three essays challenge historians to better incorporate marginalized veterans into the broader narrative of Civil War veteranhood. Mezurek’s essay is a must-read for historians working on soldiers’ homes, and represents perhaps the most robust analysis of black veterans in the institutions published to date. Adam Domby’s unique essay on pension fraud rounds out the volume’s discussion of memory, illuminating how the Lost Cause opened up avenues for Unionist North Carolinians to fraudulently procure Confederate pensions, despite having previously filed claims to the Southern Claims Commission.
There are many stellar contributions to the field here. That said, The War Went On falls short in a few places. Union veterans receive far more attention than ex-Confederates. This imbalance is understandable considering that vastly more primary sources, such as pension and soldiers’ home records, generated by Union veterans are extant today than sources pertaining to ex-Confederates. But the lopsidedness nevertheless left me curious about how the four themes named by Jordan and Rothera in the introduction mapped on to the experiences of Confederate veterans. The volume also lacks images, which ordinarily would not be problematic. However, images were needed to illustrate the key themes of Handley-Cousins’s otherwise strong essay on medical photography and Jonathan D. Neu’s chapter on Grand Army of the Republic memorial halls. The only image included in The War Went On is the volume’s cover, which depicts a reunion of Confederate veterans in 1922. A close look at this image reveals a handful of women and a black man standing among a crowd of silver-haired old soldiers. Aside from the cover image, women and the institution of slavery are largely absent from The War Went On, leaving important questions—how did traumatized Civil War veterans interact with their wives? How did ex-Confederate men react to the demise of slavery?—unaddressed.
Some of the essays put also too much stock in the notion of the Three Hundred Fighting Regiments to support assertions about veterans’ war trauma, a subtle, but important shortcoming that limits historians’ understanding of war trauma as experienced by Civil War veterans. According to research conducted by William F. Fox in the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the Union army’s fighting was done by a fraction of the men in blue. Considering Fox’s findings, some scholars argue that the men who served in the “fighting regiments” would have suffered from a heightened degree of psychological and emotional distress compared to their comrades from other units. Indeed, Hackemer convincingly shows that veterans who served in high-combat units were more likely to engage in escapism by moving out West to veterans’ colonies. However, implicit in this line of reasoning is the notion that old soldiers from outside the “fighting regiments” were less likely to suffer from invisible wounds. Yet, other studies have unearthed solid evidence that veterans who did not serve in particularly hard-fighting units were nonetheless exposed to traumatizing conditions during the Civil War. Some soldiers committed suicide before ever marching off to the front lines, simply because they feared the prospect of potentially failing the test of manhood that was battle. Witnessing friends and neighbors die of camp fevers or diarrheal diseases before ever coming under enemy fire was traumatic to men who firmly believed that one should die a “good death.” Individuals caught up in the guerrilla war, as Hulbert rightfully observes, existed in a nightmarish world without clear borders between “home front” and “battlefield”—conditions every bit as traumatizing as any typical Civil War battle. Jordan, in his essay on new directions for the field, rightfully cautions that historians should not presume that there was a correlation between high-combat military service and postwar trauma, an observation that could have been more consistently applied in The War Went On.
These caveats aside, The War Went On is essential reading for historians of Civil War veterans. I strongly recommend Jordan’s review essay, in particular, which closes out the volume with a reflection on underutilized sources and as-yet unanswered questions. Despite the flurry of veterans studies published in the last decade, Jordan calls attention to the fact that much about Civil War veteranhood remains unknown, including: the Gilded Age boom in niche industries catering to Civil War veterans, like pension lawyers; regional veterans’ newspapers, which complemented the oft-cited National Tribune and Confederate Veteran; the depiction of veterans in pop culture, both in the postwar period and today; and points of similarity and difference between the lives of ex-Confederates and black US veterans living in the postwar South, and white and black Union veterans in the North. Addressing these and other questions, Jordan points out, will lead scholars both to a fuller understanding of what happened to the men who fought the Civil War, as well as a long-overdue integration of veterans into the broader narrative of the Civil War era.
. Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014); James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Diane Miller Sommerville, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); and Sarah Handley-Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).
. Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1987).
. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008); Sommerville, Aberration of Mind.
Citation: Jonathan S. Jones. Review of Jordan, Brian Matthew; Rothera, Evan C., eds., The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55444This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.