By David Bruce Smith, Guest Contributor
As Booth’s bullet tore through Lincoln, the metaphor of his presidency—retaining the integrity of the union with care and conscience—fell away.
James Marten’s Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America, is a multi-pronged exploration into their—sometimes—voodooed aftermaths.
When the combat ended, a legion of soldiers was unable to re-adapt—comfortably–into their milieu. The average conscription age had occurred between the late teens and early twenties; by 1865 many young men were unwilling to return to school as “old”, post-battlefield pupils. Because of that, a large percentage remained undereducated and chronically difficult to employ:
[the veterans] were just men, trudging to their “little homes” without well-defined roles in their nation’s purpose and without an identity beyond that of laborer, farmer, or clerk…That sense of loss, of having missed a vital period in their young lives, became a key component of veterans’ sense of themselves that for many would last the rest of their lives.
And, a successful assimilation return to society varied according to place. In the North where the War’s denouement was frequently about touting victory—arrogantly–much of the populace forgot about the quality of empathy:
…veterans were ignored or even treated with contempt…pity sometimes—and increasingly as the century progressed…scorn and criticism.
But, in the South, where families and communities were distressed by the defeat, the GI’s still tended to be respected and valued—“….a source of compassion and even honor.”
According to Marten, the Federal government may have mismanaged the social “crisis”, too. It did not have an organized, pre-conceived matrix of programs to generate pensions/compensation, segue them into jobs, or administer care for the wounded/amputees. And, Congress did not initiate any significant action on their behalf until the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was inaugurated in the spring of 1865.
Eventually, an expansive, national network of homes specializing in soldier care was established by the U.S. Sanitary Commission and various states later in the 19th/early 20th centuries that reached from the Youngsville Veterans’ Home in California to the Maryland Line Confederate Soldiers’ Home in Pikesville. But even with those facilities—which varied in quality—there were gaggles of former fighters–especially the disabled—who were left to a lifetime of wandering, brawling, drinking or becoming “lost” and alone.
…by the end of the century, sympathetic observers estimated that hundreds of thousands of men had eventually lost their vigor as a result of vague wartime maladies and that the life expectancies of tens of thousands had been reduced by a decade or more…many, many men seem to have lived on the edges of survival, getting by on paltry pension checks, odd jobs, and charity.
The problem enlarged—as time passed—because most veterans never married; those who did usually had only one child.
Had Lincoln survived, his prospective words might have soothed a country in the midst of a serious social rumble; instead, the assassination dusted up antebellum antipathy, and underscored a schism. The North lionized the Lincoln Legacy; the South loathed him, and in the century-and-a-half since, there has been Union/Confederate repair—but only—measured–reconciliation.