A Complex Homecoming for Union Veterans: An Interview with Lesley Gordon

Lesley Gordon
Lesley Gordon. Image courtesy of the University of Akron.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies.  Today, we’re speaking with Lesley Gordon, Professor of History at The University of Akron. Gordon’s publications include: General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wives (Oxford University Press, 2001), and This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (Longman, 2003). Her latest book, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, was published in 2014 by the Louisiana State University Press.

CWI: What challenges and opportunities did US veterans encounter upon returning home from the war?  What was the process of re-assimilation back into civilian life like?  How did that process vary across different regions, classes, races, and ethnicities?

Gordon: Union veterans came home after the war hoping to return to normalcy. Demobilization happened quickly, especially considering how many soldiers had served and how long this “terrible” war had lasted. However, many found resuming their prewar lives difficult. Some of course did successfully return to their families, jobs and lives and blended smoothly and quietly into postwar society. We know more about those who struggled and failed—they simply left more records or drew more public attention. Some veterans were recovering from lingering wounds, physical, emotional and psychological ones. Yet, increasingly all veterans realized that they faced a changed postwar society, and a civilian population largely ready to move on. By the turn of the century, a growing perception of the Union veteran was that of the dependent pensioner, reliant on the state for care and financial support.

It is only relatively recently that scholars have begun to study and consider Union veterans in their own terms—separately or tied directly to the soldier experience. So we do not yet know that much about how the process of veteran experience varied by region, class, race or ethnicity. The scholarship that has been done on black veterans points to some acceptance, for example within local posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, that vitally important fraternal organization founded soon after the war ended. However, even within the membership of these GAR posts, particularly in the border South, segregation and discrimination against black veterans was common practice.

20th Maine (Gordon)
Reunion of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg, 1889. Image courtesy of the Maine Historical Society.

CWI: What was the relationship between northern veterans in the wake of the war?  How did their perceptions of Confederate veterans evolve over time?

Gordon: Comradeship was extremely important to veterans, relationships in many cases already tried and tested in combat, imprisonment and the sufferings of wartime.   Fraternal organizations, like the GAR, gave veterans a communal sense of identity and ensured that the war had a larger meaning beyond themselves. It was through unit reunions, monument dedications, parades, Memorial Day commemorations, and other public events that veterans developed their postwar sense of place and self. Further, as the decades passed, it gave many veterans a sense of pride and place, as civilians increasingly seemed to lose interest in them, their war and their personal plights.

Union veterans shared their comradeship with ex-Confederates to a point. They participated in reunions, public commemorations and battlefield dedications. However, Union veterans did not entirely embrace reunion, refusing to forget the South’s secession and attempt to destroy the Union. The issues of slavery and emancipation, however, were more problematic and divisive in the postwar era, and served to unify white veterans, north and south, while alienating and excluding black Union veterans.

CWI: How did the legacies of the war and the homecoming experience continue to shape post-war life in the North and in the newly reunited nation?

Gordon: Union veterans represent, in many ways, the complex legacy of the war. In the most basic sense, these soldiers fought and sacrificed to “save the Union” and end slavery. Yet, as the nation faltered and failed to come to grips with the implications of emancipation, these men faltered as well.   Many who were struggling financially applied for pensions and some entered state and federally supported Soldiers’ Homes. As veterans self-consciously sought to remind the public of their sacrifice, Gilded Age America was moving on, pushed forward by the forces of industrialism, immigration, and imperialism.

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