- Searching for a War of One's Own: Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, and the Glorious Burden of the Civil War Veteran
"No one, not even our sons, can appreciate the memories of camp and march, of bivouac and battle, as those who were participants therein; the scenes of the great struggle can never be to them what they were to us."
The passage above was part of an address delivered by Grand Army of the Republic commander George Merrill at the organization's national convention in 1882. His remarks were made in response to debates within the Grand Army's membership concerning whether the sons of Union veterans should be allowed a more active role in the organization. Merrill argued, and the majority of those in attendance at the convention agreed with him, that it was better for the Grand Army to cease to exist rather than dilute veteran identity by allowing their sons the right to full participation. Instead, Merrill believed that the male descendents of veterans should strive to promote the legacy of their fathers through such organizations as the Sons of Veterans. 1 Southern veterans' groups like the United Confederate Veterans were less exclusive than the Grand Army in the roles they offered to their sons, but still maintained a firm distinction between those who had actually experienced Civil War combat and those whose knowledge came from reading or listening to the tales of old soldiers. As Southern veteran Duke Goodman noted with some concern in a letter to the Confederate Veteran magazine, "I find in many portions of the state that the UCV camps are amalgamating with the masses and holding reunions; the masses are fast overshadowing [End Page 1] these camps. The day is not far distant when, if this is kept up, these camps will lose their identity." 2
Veteran fears that their identity would be "amalgamated" with that of the general population and gradually become lost were a recurring theme in the literature associated with their reunions. 3 This was especially true in the 1890s as increasingly larger numbers of civilians flocked to see the extensive military-like camps erected for these gatherings, which presented something of a refuge for civilians from the discontents of life in the Gilded Age. At the same time that these crowds of civilians grew in number, the ranks of Civil War veterans in the North and South had begun to thin. This led remaining veterans to become ever more protective of "their war." For not only had the war given them a new sense of self but it also gave them the privileged social status they enjoyed in the nation. The defensiveness of these aging veterans posed a serious problem for the men of the younger generation, whether they were sons of veterans or not. Like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, the men coming of age in the decades after the Civil War had been taught from birth that "war makes men." Consequently, they longed for a chance to prove their own manhood on the battlefield. The aspirations of this rising generation, however, butted against veteran claims that they had fought the last "real" war in American history. Men like Stephen Crane, who grew up long after the war had ended, felt a sense of belatedness when confronted by veterans' claims to cultural superiority and uniqueness. To the younger generation these claims suggested that true manhood was no longer available even though society argued that it was necessary for full citizenship. This contradictory message placed the nation's young men in an untenable situation, one in which they were asked to live out their own manhood as mere custodians of the legacy of the previous generation.
As a result of this contradictory message, a significant tension developed between the veterans of the Civil War and the younger generation, and yet this tension has received little critical interest from scholars studying gender relations in the late-nineteenth century. Kristin Hoganson is one of the few scholars to come close. She examines the conflicted role of Civil War veterans in the jingoist movement that sparked the wars in Cuba...