Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (review)
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Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America. By James Marten. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 352. $39.95 cloth)

When Union and Confederate soldiers left the brutal battlefields and mundane camp life of the Civil War behind them, most hoped for joyous homecomings and an easy transition to life at home. In Sing Not War, James Marten examines Civil War veterans to see how they fit into civilian life and how the nonveteran public perceived them in the decades following the end of the war. According to Marten, the members of the “Greatest Generation” of the nineteenth century found themselves set apart from the civilian population. In the South, the public worshipped Confederate veterans as heroes and reminders of the Lost Cause. In the North, many civilians described Union veterans in negative terms as tramps, drunks, and fools. The chasm between veterans and civilians grew as former Union soldiers entered soldiers’ homes and pushed for increasingly generous pension benefits.

Marten draws on a wide variety of sources—including veterans’ newspapers, soldiers’-home records, letters, diaries, and questionnaires—in his examination of Union and Confederate veterans. [End Page 219] While other scholars have researched Civil War veterans as a way to get at other elements of postwar America (such as historical memory, the Lost Cause, or partisan politics), Marten maintains his focus on the history of veterans as a group. Sing Not War fills a significant gap in the scholarship of the Gilded Age by highlighting the public presence of Civil War veterans; the old soldiers forced civilians to consider questions about the proper role of the federal government and the definition of true manhood.

Sing Not War is organized thematically; each chapter looks at one element of veterans’ experiences and public image. Chapter topics include homecomings, the “commodification” of the war, soldiers’ homes, and veterans’ identity. One of Marten’s most compelling chapters looks at veterans and disability. Nonveterans often focused on the disabled veterans’ helplessness and dependence, minimizing their masculinity. Marten includes alcoholism as a disability, and his fascinating research reveals that many Northerners perceived Union veterans to be drunkards based on the behavior of men in soldiers’ homes. This reputation created a division between veterans and the nonveteran public who viewed drunkenness as a moral weakness and a threat to manhood.

Not surprisingly, the public debate over pensions created the biggest divide between the veteran and civilian populations in the North. Confederate pensions did not spark debate since Southerners revered old soldiers and paid small pensions to the most-needy veterans. In contrast, by the 1890s, the federal government paid out one-fourth of its revenue to aging Union veterans. Many civilian Northerners saw the pension program as a drain on the national resources and criticized the veterans’ wastefulness and dependence. One critic even argued that the nation would be better off once the last veteran was “securely planted” (p. 203).

This well-written book does have its weaknesses. Marten proposes to study both Union and Confederate veterans, but he concentrates most of his attention on former Union soldiers. Confederate veterans appear sporadically, usually in contrast to the negative stereotypes [End Page 220] attached to veterans in the North. Also, Marten’s focus on damaged veterans prevents him from considering the thousands of men who made easy transitions to life at home. He does a fine job describing the public perception of veterans, but his examination of the ways that former soldiers inserted themselves into civilian life feels unbalanced.

Marten’s work is a reminder of the lingering presence of the Civil War in the decades after the last shots were fired on the battlefield. It should be of great interest to social and cultural historians as well as anyone interested in Civil War history. Sing Not War fulfills the desire expressed publicly by many Union and Confederate veterans—to be remembered in the history books.

Jalynn Olsen Padilla

Jalynn Olsen Padilla is an instructor of history at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She is currently researching disabled Union veterans and manhood in Victorian America.


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