Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900.
In the 1960s a younger generation of historians announced the birth of the new social history.(1) Their principal purpose was to study the lives of ordinary people. Caught up in the fervor of the civil rights movement, they eagerly examined slavery in all its aspects and replaced the then prevailing view that Reconstruction had been a failure with the morally drawn conclusion that it had been a betrayal. They virtually ignored the Civil War.
They ignored this war, I believe, for several reasons. First, they rejected war philosophically as part of the civil rights movement's commitment to nonviolence. Second, they had no desire to be associated with the military historians who were then helping to stage nostalgic centennial reenactments of Civil War battles. Third, they insisted upon studying the lives of ordinary people, and the Civil War, as conceived at the time, meant the study of politicians, generals, and battles in which the voices of ordinary people were all but forgotten or overwhelmed. (Somehow, they ignored Bell I. Wiley's meaty portrayal of ordinary soldiers in Life of Johnny Reb, 1943, and Life of Billy Yank, 1952.)(2) Finally, revulsion against the war in Vietnam led them to avoid thinking about war, including the Civil War.
As social history gained prominence after 1970, the Civil War remained oddly missing as a subject of study. One reason, for many leftists, was that, although a big event, the war did not fit easily into a Marxian framework. Was the war a triumph for industrial capitalism? Bourgeois values? Or proletarian consciousness? Other historians, more interested in explaining the impact of history on current events than in retelling history for its own sake, did not see how the great slaughter offered insights useful to the present. One pathbreaking book, all but ignored when published, that connected the war to other issues was David Montgomery's Beyond Equality (1967).
Maris A. Vinovskis has tackled the Civil War more directly. In 1989 Vinovskis published an important essay in the Journal of American History urging social historians to give closer examination to the Civil War. Too much attention, he argued, had been paid to the conflict's military history. He was more interested in the social structure of the United States that emerged during and under the influence of the war, including questions about who had fought and who got pensions. Vinovskis has now republished that essay in an edited volume that also showcases the work of six younger scholars. A brief review of these essays gives a fair sampling of current research.
Thomas Kemp explores differences in enlistment patterns in two politically divergent New Hampshire towns. In 1861 enlistments were considerably higher in Republican Clarement than in Democratic Newport. Pressure from a state draft in 1862 and the federal draft in 1863 tended to even the score, however. Kemp found that men from all social classes served in the union army, although the Democratic elite in Newport was less likely to enlist.
Reid Mitchell, in an essay based on northern soldiers' letters, looks at home influences. Because men from the same locale usually enlisted together, the military company recreated the community left behind. Letters, furloughs home, and visits from friends and relatives to camp reinforced connections. So long as the home community backed the war, morale in the union army remained high. A soldier's behavior was routinely reported back home and reinforced both courage and sobriety.(3)
The war had a dramatic impact upon northern civilians. Examining Philadelphia's Great Central Fair of 1864, Matthew Gallman argues that the fair, organized by the Sanitary Commission to raise money for war-related activities, represented both an increasing tendency toward centralization and a growing role for women in charitable work. Gallman concludes, however, that although these changes started during the war, they mostly developed in the 1870s.(4)
In the most interesting and original essay in this volume, Robin Einhorn demonstrates that the war produced a profound change in Chicago politics. In the 1850s the city government did little, except to form local improvement districts financed by property assessments paid by taxpayers who derived direct benefits. The war challenged this political system. Unlike other communities, the Chicago city council rejected a downward subsidy by appropriating only modest amounts for soldiers' bounties. In contrast, the city used general tax revenues to clean up river pollution caused by the increase in wartime meat production at Chicago's slaughterhouses. This upward subsidy became the basis for the formation of a political machine based upon contracts. In other words, machine politics served elite masters.(5)
Stuart McConnell reports on the membership characteristics of three local units for the postwar Grand Army of the Republic among the elite in Philadelphia, among farmers and lumbermen in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and in the shoemaking community of Brockton, Massachusetts. Philadelphia Post 2 maintained its elite status by charging an unusually high initiation fee of ten dollars. Its ranks were mostly filled from the upper middle class. The other two posts studied were, like lodges in the late nineteenth century, cross-class.
Amy Holmes takes up the important question of pensions for Civil War veterans' widows. In 1862 Congress provided pensions for widows either of soldiers killed in the war or of those who subsequently died from service-connected disabilities. In 1890 Congress extended pensions to widows of all union veterans. By the 1890s in a few states as many as 17 percent of widows drew such pensions.
Collectively, these seven essays suggest some ways in which social historians are beginning to investigate the Civil War. Other recent work has also led social historians to reevaluate their reluctance to study the Civil War. T. J. Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace (1981) challenged traditional views about the late nineteenth century and implicitly forced a reexamination of the war. The war also cast a shadow across Michael E. McGerr's The Decline of Popular Politics (1986), a fine study of mass participation in politics during the postwar years. Perhaps most important is Eric Foner's masterly Reconstruction (1988), which uses 1863 as a starting date and roots the postwar experience in the war. All three books suggest the need to reevaluate the late nineteenth century in terms of the Civil War's impact.
Stuart McConnell's fine book is a welcome addition to this literature. Raising new questions and pushing the argument in new and profitable directions, he is at his best when engaged in the intellectual historian's pursuit of exploring assumptions, considering nuances, assessing ideas, and weighing implications. McConnell's thesis is bold: he believes the Civil War reshaped northern consciousness, especially for veterans, and that the resultant principles, values, and beliefs manifested themselves as the major organizing force in northern and national life for the remainder of the nineteenth century.
This large, and in some ways startling, proposition is investigated through a careful examination of the organization, beliefs, practices, and lobbying efforts of the large and potent veterans' organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The main issue to emerge from the war, McConnell argues, was the meaning of the American nation. For what reason, after all, had so many union soldiers died? Veterans struggled with this question for the remainder of their lives, and through the GAR they devised a set of answers that gave shape to late-nineteenth-century America.
Organized in 1866 by Radical veterans opposed to Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies, the GAR began as a political lobbying group. By the early 1870s this first phase ended, and the organization virtually disappeared, as Americans tried to forget the Civil War. In the 1880s a wave of interest in the war swept the country, and the GAR rebounded, largely for the purpose of memorializing dead comrades and to insist that a "correct" interpretation of the war be told in grammar school history books. Much to the annoyance of Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, the GAR articulated the conservative view that the war's purpose had been to preserve the union. Entwined with this idea was the notion that union veterans formed a special generation uniquely responsible for national salvation.
By 1890 the GAR had entered a third phase. That year membership peaked at more than 400,000, making the GAR one of the largest mass organizations in the country. The GAR lobbied Congress successfully to redefine veterans' pension rights. In 1862 Congress had provided soldiers' or widows' pensions for soldiers killed or injured by war-related disabilities; the 1890 law extended benefits to all poor veterans or their widows. Veterans and their families believed themselves entitled to such a large claim on the federal treasury--40 percent of expenditures in 1893, Vinovskis calculated--because they had sacrificed so much during the Civil War.
One way in which the GAR maintained its sense of uniqueness, observes McConnell, was to refuse to extend membership either to descendants or to nonwar veterans. The organization, thus, was doomed to die with the last Civil War veteran. In part, this was the GAR's way to bring the South back into the national fold by not perpetuating regional differences, but it mainly reflected the GAR's psychology of uniqueness.
The GAR never despised individual Confederate soldiers. Indeed, by the 1890s joint encampments of veterans from the opposing armies were sometimes held. GAR members showed more respect for their old enemies than for Northerners who had remained behind as civilians. At the same time, the GAR opposed any display of Confederate flags or the decoration of Confederate graves with American flags on Memorial Day. To the GAR, the flag became the symbol of the righteous triumph of the Union army in the war. The GAR helped lead the movement in the 1890s to fly flags over schools, to pledge allegiance, and to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Patriotism was symbolized with flags but defined by the acres of blood spilled in the Civil War.
Given the war's large sacrifices, could any future generation do less? By the 1890s GAR members worried about the answer to that question. They usually were confident that, if war came, the sons of the GAR would show the same selfless, sacrificing qualities as the older generation, but they were doubtful about newly arrived immigrants. Many GAR members urged immigration restriction.(6)
Interestingly, the GAR itself acted as an instrument for assimilation. Membership was open to all honorably discharged veterans, and immigrants, mostly Irish, German, on British, who constituted about one-quarter of the Union army, were active in many GAR posts, as the local units were called. In larger cities, immigrants and blacks had their own posts, but in smaller towns posts had diverse memberships, including African Americans. Banned from or hostile to lodge organizations, Catholics routinely belonged to the GAR.
In many ways the GAR resembled the fraternal lodges that enjoyed popularity in the late nineteenth century. Like other fraternal groups, the GAR borrowed much of its initiation ritual from the Freemasons. As Lynn Dumenil's Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930 (1984), Mary Ann Clawson's Constructing Brotherhood (1989), and Mark Carnes's Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (1989) have shown, fraternal organizations were very important in American life during this period. One main function, and this was especially true of the GAR, was for such groups to bring men together across class lines.
About half of all union veterans belonged to the GAR. Those who had been officers and those who were wealthy or middle class were more likely to join, but members could be found from all classes. Applicants could be blackballed by a single member, and some posts used this device to keep out veterans who had served in the army for very short periods. A few posts had high initiation fees or expensive uniforms that effectively barred poorer veterans. Posts exercised much local autonomy, and state and national organizations were distinctly less important, functioning primarily as lobbying groups on behalf of veterans.
By 1900 the GAR had succeeded not only in collecting large pensions for Civil War veterans but, more important, in persuading most Americans to accept the GAR version of the Civil War. In this view, the Republic had been saved by two million Northern volunteers, self-sacrificing men who had rushed forward selflessly to give their lives to maintain the very existence of democratic government and the rule of law. Nothing enraged the GAR more than refusing to call the Confederates traitors or the war a Rebellion, that is, an illegitimate, unprincipled, illegal uprising. Although the courage of individual Southerners might be admired, only the Union army, now reincarnated as the Grand Army of the Republic, could be honored as the unique national savior. Extravagant war memorials sought to keep that memory alive for future generations to ponder and admire.
McConnell's superb book, even more than Lears's or McGerr's, reopens the question of the late nineteenth century in the larger context of American history. By showing how the 1890s was rooted, for so many Americans, in youthful experiences of the 1860s, McConnell reconnects, as does Foner, the war and the postwar years. The shadow of the war, which Lewis Mumford once called the brown decades, was not cast merely by the actual events of that war but comprised the specific way in which Americans chose to construct a national memory and consciousness about the war.(7)
In that sense, the Civil War lived on, half triumph and half nightmare, well into the twentieth century. The intensity of the nationalism, as much as the rivers of blood, opened possibilities, including imperialism, foreclosed others, including European-style class conflict, and inflated the American ego with a zest for global mastery. After surviving the Civil War, who could doubt Manifest Destiny, or that the newly centralized Republic, freed from slavery, would play the leading role on the world stage? After all, having survived the horror of Americans killing Americans in awful numbers, what was there to fear in world war? No one could do worse to us than what we had done to ourselves.
W. J. Rorabaugh, Department of History, University of Washington, Seattle, is the author of Berkeley at War: The 1960s (1989).
1. E.g., Barton J. Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past (1968).
2. For a recent work that blends social history and traditional concerns, see Phillip S. Paludan, A People's Contest (1988).
3. See also Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers (1988).
4. See also J. Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime (1990).
5. See also Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules (1991).
6. On the patriotic enthusiasms of immigrants during this period, see Matthew F. Jacobson, "Special Sorrows: Irish-, Polish-, and Yiddish-American Nationalism and the Diasporic Imagination" (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1992).
7. Lewis Mumford, The Brown Decades (1932). See also the brilliant evocation of the era in Charles Royster, The Destructive War (1991).
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|Author:||R orabaugh, W.J.|
|Publication:||Reviews in American History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1993|
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