James Tanner in War and Peace
Publication Year: 2014
James Tanner may be the most famous person in nineteenth-century America that no one has heard of. During his service in the Union army, he lost the lower third of both his legs and afterward had to reinvent himself. After a brush with fame as the stenographer taking down testimony a few feet away from the dying President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Tanner eventually became one of the best-known men in Gilded Age America. He was a highly placed Republican operative, a popular Grand Army of the Republic speaker, an entrepreneur, and a celebrity. He earned fame and at least temporary fortune as “Corporal Tanner,” but most Americans would simply have known him as “The Corporal.” Yet virtually no one—not even historians of the Civil War and Gilded Age— knows him today.
America’s Corporal rectifies this startling gap in our understanding of the decades that followed the Civil War. Drawing on a variety of primary sources including memoirs, lectures, newspapers, pension files, veterans’ organization records, poetry, and political cartoons, James Marten brings Tanner’s life and character into focus and shows what it meant to be a veteran— especially a disabled veteran—in an era that at first worshipped the saviors of the Union but then found ambiguity in their political power and insistence on collecting ever-larger pensions. This biography serves as an examination of the dynamics of disability, the culture and politics of the Gilded Age, and the aftereffects of the Civil War, including the philosophical and psychological changes that it prompted.
The book explores the sometimes corrupt, often gridlocked, but always entertaining politics of the era, from Tanner’s days as tax collector in Brooklyn through his short-lived appointment as commissioner of pensions (one of the biggest jobs in the federal government of the 1880s). Marten provides a vivid case study of a classic Gilded Age entrepreneur who could never make enough money. America’s Corporal is a reflection on the creation of celebrity—and of its ultimate failure to preserve the memory of a man who represented so many of the experiences and assumptions of the Gilded Age.
Published with the generous support of the Amanda and Greg Gregory Family Fund
Published by: University of Georgia Press
Series: Uncivil Wars
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Normally I can’t wait for a book to leave my house, but not America’s Corporal. I learned of Tanner while writing Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (a long- gestating book whose completion I definitely celebrated!) and decided I wanted to get to know the Corporal better. A chance conversation with Steve Berry coincided with a sabbatical...
PROLOGUE. No Regrets
It was Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and almost everyone in the squalid, bustling capital city wanted to celebrate. Just fi ve days before, Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Confederacy’s largest army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The war was fi nally ending, the Union would be preserved, and Leonard Grover, owner and proprietor of Grover’s New National Theater...
ONE. The War Hit Me and Hit Me Hard: Jimmie Tanner’s Civil WarM
As a Union veteran, Tanner was part of the most recognizable single group of American men during the last third of the nineteenth century: 41 percent of all northern white men born between 1822 and 1845 served in the Union army, while an astounding 81 percent of all men born in 1843—just a year before Tanner’s birthday—took up arms for the Union. In many ways, Tanner’s military..
TWO. Living with Disability: Jim Tanner Reinvents Himself
There have always been disabled people in the United States, of course, and during the nineteenth century industrialization and the development of railroads led to a dramatic increase in the number of men disabled in work- related accidents. But the Civil War would lead not only to over six hundred thousand deaths but to the disabling of hundreds of thousands of other men by sickness, injuries, and a combination of poor diet, exposure to harsh weather...
THREE. Brooklyn Days: Becoming Corporal Tanner
James Tanner took to the rough- and- tumble politics of Brooklyn like a native. He thrived in the rising economic might and political influence of his new home and embraced the veterans’ culture that off. ered another kind of support and attention. With the same determination he had demonstrated in overcoming his physical disability, he built a reputation for honesty in one of the...
FOUR. God Help the Surplus: Corporal Tanner and Civil War Pensions
Tanner rode the wave of the pension issue all the way to Washington, where he became President Benjamin Harrison’s highest- profi le political appointment. As always, Tanner had played a crucial role in the campaign, and the soldier vote contributed signifi cantly to the Republican victory. Many observers saw his appointment as a reward for both Tanner and his comrades in the...
FIVE. The Most Celebrated GAR Man in the World: Legacies
James Tanner lived for another thirty- eight years after he left the Pension Bureau. He flourished as a claims agent, maintained his infl uence in the Republican Party, and continued to be a popular lecturer and campaigner. He would win the office he had truly wanted—commander in chief of the national gar—and remain a beloved fi gure among old soldiers. In 1904, the Niagara Falls Gazette called Tanner...
EPILOGUE AND CONCLUSION. The Footless Ghost
James Tanner haunted Washington while he lived and, according to some witnesses, after he died. One night in 1972, a security guard making his rounds in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (then housed in the old red- brick Pension Bureau Building on F Street) encountered a mysterious “man in a light- colored suit with a peculiar walk.” The stranger opened his mouth...
Reflection on Sources and Selected Bibliography