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.