Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration among Civil War Veterans by M. Keith Harris (review)
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Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration among Civil War Veterans. By M. Keith Harris. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 220. $42.50 cloth; $42.50 ebook)

In this brief but effective study, Harris argues that although political leaders—even presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt—promoted a culture of national reconciliation in the decades following the Civil War, and some veterans gave lip service to it, a great many veterans chose with sharply sectional language “to contest the terms of reconciliation within the context of a shifting national commemorative ethos” (p. 14). They expressed their lingering animosity especially through meetings of veterans’ groups, such as the Grand Army of the Republic and the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States on the Union side and the United Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the Confederate side, the composition of regimental histories, articles, and letters to the editors of these organizations’ magazines and newsletters, and the increase in Civil War monuments erected from the 1880s. For many veterans, resentments over the manner in which prisoners were kept in such places as Andersonville Prison in Georgia, Libby Prison in Virginia, Elmira Prison in New York, and Alton Prison in Illinois and the extent of passions aroused on both sides in such significant battles as Fredericksburg, which represented the peak of Confederate success, and Gettysburg, which Union troops saw as the war’s turning point, were too great to overcome with later conciliatory overtures.

Harris provides a balanced account of both Union and Confederate veterans’ sentiments, but an interesting consequence of Harris’s presentation of Confederate veterans’ particular lack of repentance is that they did not all subscribe to the idea of the Lost Cause, according to which southern men fought valiantly despite insurmountable material and manpower disadvantages from the war’s inception. They believed in the righteousness of the war effort, if not for the preservation of slavery, then at the very least to resist northern invaders. Some [End Page 101] veterans dismissed talk of a “Lost Cause” as “apologetic whine” (pp. 13, 72). And the war’s result was certainly not a foregone conclusion—hence the importance attached by combatants on both sides to such crucial battles as Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Northerners appear as the sole villains in Harris’s book, and when they criticized Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis as traitors after the war, Confederate veterans defended their former leaders (pp. 53, 74, 80). Individuals memorializing the Confederacy appear much different here than they do in, say, Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins’s interesting work Love and Duty: Amelia & Josiah Gorgas & Their Family (2005), in which Amelia Gayle Gorgas became deeply involved in the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Alabama and accepted the Lost Cause.

One aspect of Harris’s study that makes it particularly worthwhile is his frequent discussion of the merits of the varied sources he uses to detail veterans’ sentiments, such as the regimental histories, newspaper accounts of memorial dedications, minutes of veterans groups’ chapter meetings, and the veterans groups’ magazines and newsletters. The minutes and regimental histories did not have a wide audience outside small groups of comrades-at-arms, so they would express sincere and passionate views without restraint. Publications gave opportunities for like-minded men to make their feelings public, especially through letters to editors.

Two nagging questions might arise in the reader’s mind while digesting Harris’s study. One is that the question of how race influenced Confederate veterans’ views could have been explored more thoroughly. Harris does show how Union veterans took pride in ending slavery even though emancipation was not explicitly an initial war aim. When a couple of prominent Union veterans mentioned slavery as a cornerstone of the Rebel cause but said nothing about racial equality in their remarks, we are left only with the assumption that they have “presumably racist proclivities” (p. 95). Harris also shows how Confederate veterans expressed fierce resentment over their treatment in prison camps by African American troops. Harris rightly suggests that racism can be overblown as a motivational factor in the postwar...