Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan. W.W. Norton, 2014.

The men in blue who fought in the Civil War continued to fight that war for years and even decades after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865. It had been a long a deadly war, mostly fought by conscripts. Those soldiers had accomplished the Union’s objectives, ending both the rebellion and slavery. In May 23 and 24, 1865 elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the Capital, receiving the enthusiastic accolades of the crowds and politicians, though Abraham Lincoln’s recent assassination by a Confederate sympathizer had cast a pall over the Grand Review.

Had the Rebels been defeated? The men in blue were hearing unsettling stories of race riots and lynching of blacks in Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere.

Returning Union soldiers sensed that the civilian population in the North wished to bury the sectional rivalries that had caused the war, and move beyond flag-waving parades.  What, then, would be their hometown reception? This is where the author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan begins his story of their – and the reader’s – journey back to post-Civil War America.

In the century since 1865 we have come to understand the psychological injury of warfare on its participants. It has been called by different names in different wars, “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” in more recently “post-traumatic stress disorder.” It had yet to be given a name in 1865.

Almost immediately the former men in blue organized. The Grand Army of the Republic began pressing for pensions for those who had served in the war and the creation of a national holiday (Memorial Day) to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Their demands were mixed with their impatience, even anger. The demobilization process had left many veterans sitting around, waiting, and without the adrenalin rush of battle. They had time to worry about their reintegration into their families. Would they be able to find work? Moreover, on the edges of these postwar encampments, there were shysters around to offer them bogus services.  And others offering a plentiful supply of whiskey. Many veterans had taken up the War Department’s offer and bought their weapons. They were impatient, angry, and armed. This ominous mix produced an “epidemic of misdeeds.” Civilians, Jordon suggests, were puzzled by this anger, and frightened.

The wounded had received better medical attention in the newly organized base hospitals during the Civil War than was true of other wars of that era. The most common treatment for the many shattered arms and legs was, however, still amputation. Jordon relates the story of a left-handed penmanship competition for amputees who had lost their right arm. The essays, usually about their war experiences, were not judged, only the penmanship. A common theme: their wounds (empty sleeves) were ‘living monuments’ to the sacrifices which they had made for the Union. And they were unsure about how much those empty sleeves were unappreciated.

Jordan devotes a chapter to veterans who spent time in Confederate Prisoner of War camps. (A journey to the Andersonville Prison near Americus, Georgia gives the visitor some idea of the horrors of imprisonment in the last years of the war.) POWs returning to civilian life had all of the same anxieties of other veterans, but they were also in terrible physical shape. Plus they had to face the stigma of having surrendered.

The federal government established a network of ‘asylums’ (subsequently called ‘homes’) for those veterans who couldn’t make it in the civilian life to which they had returned. As the numbers of aging veterans with health and mental problems grew, the states began establishing homes as well. The Iowa Veterans Home was in Marshalltown, seventeen miles from my home town of Garwin. It opened in 1887.

Residents in these homes were subject to Army rules and regulations and military discipline for infractions. Those admitted were required to wear uniforms, march in formation, and stand at attention for inspection. They rose and retired to the bugle call. Residents needed passes to get by the sentry at the gate. Despite much political grumbling about the “extravagant” government expenditure involved, Civil War soldiers were eventually awarded $8.00 a month. (Roughly $180.00 in current dollars.) They had to sign their pension over to any facility they entered.

As an example of the insensibility to Union veterans, Jordan tells the story of President Grover Cleveland’s first term of office, 1885 to 1889. (Cleveland had hired a young Polish immigrant as his substitute, allowed by the 1863 Conscription Act.)  A Democrat, he wished to bring the South back into the national Democratic Party and condemned the “wicked traffic… in sectional hatred.” He was referring to the Union veterans who opposed his ‘Southern strategy.’

In a gesture to end this sectional hatred, he proposed the return of Southern battle flags captured by Union soldiers and over the years entrusted to the government. There was much sentiment attached to these “relics” of the good fight, so returning them was an affront. Cleveland apologized and withdrew his proposal.  The incident, however, gives testimony to Brian Jordan’s “unending Civil War.”

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