- Following Ulysses:The Search for Keystone Union Veterans at The Pennsylvania State Archives
Nearly a month before marching with his comrades of the 83 rd Pennsylvania Infantry into the American Civil War's bloody Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, Private Daniel B. Foote wrote to his parents Daniel and Jane in Erie County of the post-war future. The men, he explained while encamped near Brandy's Station Virginia, still acted "as so many old farmers in-stead of fiery soldiers of a dozen battles. I think it shows how quietly we can live when this war is out; how well we will be satisfied with excitement and [be] settled and be wonderful examples of grave, steady, moderate men."1 Unfortunately, despite the continued public and academic interest that produces hundreds of titles annually on the nation's bloodiest conflict, modern historians have tended to remain reticent on the accuracy of Foote's or the myriad of other such postbellum prognostications that swirled throughout the Keystone state—and the North in general—during the final year of the Civil War. Indeed within the past twenty years no less than three separate surveys of Civil War literature have lamented the "underdevelopment" of the field of veteran studies—especially when compared to the continued attention and subsequent fruitful analysis of the men's lives while they were soldiers. The most recent, Larry Logue and Michael Barton's The Civil War Veteran, even (correctly) proclaimed that the best comprehensive study of the Republic's old warriors still remained Dixon Wecter's sixty-five year old study, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.2 [End Page 476]
Instead, this next chapter in the American Civil War frequently has become a victim of periodization—lost among the dynamic forces of late nineteenth-century southern Reconstruction, westward expansion, and burgeoning northern industrialism—or simply relegated to a brief wartime epilogue. And while a few scholars have begun to struggle against the tide by examining specific individual components of veteran life, all too many historians of the period continue to offer familiar, but often ahistorical, portrayals of the Union Cincinnati returning to their family homesteads to, as one northern veteran described, "just take up the farm work where I had left off."3 As a result, the old soldiers' voices and what they might bring to our understanding of the Civil War have gone largely unheard and undocumented. However, amidst the historical haze, the Union veteran experience still presents a unique opportunity to examine and analyze the individual and local effects of the war. Indeed historian Larry Logue reminds us that "analysts of Postbellum America would do well to pay more attention to the behavior of ex-soldiers."4 The returned boys in blue were living monuments to the North's sacrifices and served as daily reminders that the war's impact did not end in 1865 but reverberated throughout the remainder of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
In the search to reconstruct elements of the Union veteran odyssey, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's State Archives in Harrisburg represents for historians an unparalleled and invaluable resource containing a host of tantalizing clues and evidence of the long journey back to citizenry for thousands of Keystone soldiers. Tales of veteran readjustment successes and failures abound throughout the Archive's late nineteenth and early twentieth-century holdings, occasionally appearing in folders and collections hitherto unexamined with a veteran's lens. Indeed during this author's time there as a Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission Scholar-in-Residence, and with the intrepid assistance of Jonathan Stayer and all of the Archives' staff, a number of unique details and intricacies of the veterans' experience emerged often from the most unlikely and unexpected sources. This brief article thus hopes to serve as an initial guidepost through the labyrinthine stacks of the Pennsylvania State Archives for historians and the general public seeking their own answers to veteran readjustment. In addition it presents a reminder to all scholars that occasionally some of the most enlightening and interesting gems exist not within the obvious, and frequently examined, folders, boxes, or texts, but among the seemingly inconsequential or even...