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  • The Lost Boys:Citizen-Soldiers, Disabled Veterans, and Confederate Nationalism in the Age of People's War

Once you erect a statue, you have belittled and defeated yourself. You cannot compete with it.

—Corra Harris, The Recording Angel (1912)

The death by his own hand of Edmund Ruffin, slaveholder and secessionist, is well known. By taking his own life upon learning of the Confederacy's defeat, Ruffin epitomized southern defiance in a gesture often interpreted, as he intended it to be, as the ultimate rejection of Yankee rule. Yet Ruffin's decision to choose death over dishonor can only be understood, his biographer David F. Allmendinger Jr. has argued, if placed in the broader context of a society predicated on the elusive concept of honor, on a form of white masculine selfhood that stressed individual agency and independence. In such a society, the transition from self-definition to self-destruction may not have been as unusual as the popular fascination with Ruffin sometimes makes it seem. Ruffin was hardly the sole southerner unable to envisage a future for himself in the defeated South, and he was certainly not the only one whose thoughts turned to suicide in response. Edmund Ruffin acted alone in June 1865, but he was far from alone in the trajectory of his thinking; what assured him a lasting place in the southern memory of the Civil War was his success in achieving his own means to his end.1

Yet while Ruffin's suicide provides the historian with a tidy if tragic coda to the conclusion of the Confederate bid for nationhood, an emotive epitaph not just to a man's life but to a way of life, it also obscures the broader impact of the war on the minds and bodies of Confederate soldiers and veterans; above all, it shifts the historical gaze from the living to the dead. Civil War historians have ever, but increasingly in recent years, been fascinated by the dead, by what C. Vann Woodward described as the "simple and eloquent measurement" of the war's impact that its death toll provides. "The most immediate legacy of the war," David W. Blight has argued, "was its slaughter and how to remember it," while, most recently, in her study of death and the Civil War Drew Gilpin Faust has proposed that "the meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost"—a cost measured not in the postwar traumas of its survivors but in the postwar nation's response to the dead.2 [End Page 233]

Slaughter, however, was not the war's only legacy. The scale of death in the Civil War was almost matched by the scale of nonfatal casualties among those who returned home. The physically maimed represented the most potent contemporary evidence of the personal cost of the Civil War, yet in the historiography these victims have been rendered, if not entirely invisible, certainly marginal to the social, political, and military analyses of that conflict, more usually invoked as symbols of the cost of Confederate defeat than as the price of Union victory. Even in the case of the South, however, the young men who returned less than whole from the battlefields in 1865 are only just beginning to receive sustained attention from historians. Until recently, it was only in their old age that the "grizzled old men" of the Confederate armies made a historiographical appearance, but with their "empty sleeves and blank stares," they simply symbolized and reinforced what was by the later nineteenth century a national obsession with reunion, reconciliation, and romanticized remembrance of the Civil War.3

While the memory of the war's surviving disabled veterans remained specific to the individual damaged body, the memory of the Confederate fallen—the "Ghosts of the Confederacy"—swiftly became embodied metaphorically in the physical landscape of the South and spiritually in the civic religion of the Lost Cause. Indeed, at their most extreme, writings on Confederate nationalism can convey the impression that the "imagined community" of the postwar South was and remained firmly located in the cemetery; the "cities of the dead" seem so much more alive in that respect than...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2159-9807
Print ISSN
2154-4727
Pages
pp. 233-259
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-19
Open Access
N
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