- Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America
In 1892, Sarah Orne Jewett penned a short story for Harper's New Monthly Magazine that surely resonated with many Civil War veterans. Jewett's tale opens with three old soldiers discussing the mundane aspects of weather and crops. But soon their conversation drifts to the community's apparent apathy toward the upcoming Memorial Day. Reflecting on the day meant to honor the cause for which they had sacrificed so much, they recounted brothers and friends who died in the war, another who had never been able to fit back in his community and turned instead to the bottle, and yet others who now slumbered in the paupers' [End Page 281] cemetery. All had found their return to civilian life riddled with difficulties. "The fellows that staid at home got all the fat places, an' when we come back we felt dreadful behind the times," one veteran mutters. "They begun to call us hero an' stick-in-the-mud just about the same time," adds another (236).
Such sentiments are at the center of James Marten's thoughtful and provocative new monograph, Sing Not War. Peeling back the pageantry of aging veterans tottering down the streets for Fourth of July celebrations or embracing their former comrades at reunions, Marten reveals an often tragic portrait of how both Union and Confederate veterans attempted to adjust to civilian life after the war. Their struggle, he explains, was much more difficult than either they or we might have expected.
In recent years, studies by Chandra Manning, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Jason Phillips, and others have built on the work of James McPherson to create an extensive literature on soldiers' experiences during the war. But most have not followed these men out of their battle lines and back to their villages, farms, and cities. Those that have examined veterans in peacetime—with notable exceptions, such as Larry Logue's To Appomattox and Beyond (1996) and Eric T. Dean Jr.'s Shook over Hell (1997)—have tended to concentrate on veterans' organizations and efforts to memorialize the war. Marten, however, offers us another story—one that focuses on the ways in which both individually and collectively veterans and noncombatants endeavored to make sense of their relationship to each other and to the nation at large.
In impeccably rich detail, Marten recounts the homecomings of soldiers from Texas to Maine. Brilliantly weaving in poetry and short stories with firsthand accounts, he highlights the complexity of demobilization—the efforts of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) to provide medical care and assist Union veterans with job placement, the delight of families in having their husbands and fathers home, and Confederate veterans' determined efforts to reclaim their dignity and manhood amid defeat. The hardest part, he notes, was simply readjusting to the rhythms of civilian life. Most soldiers seemed to find leaving behind the killing relatively easy, but abandoning the "wild life"—the drinking, gambling, and carousing—appeared to be more difficult. Although organizations like the USSC tried to mitigate these challenges, the belief that soldiers had been corrupted ran deep among civilians. Stereotypes of drunk and immoral veterans would haunt them for decades to come.
If most soldiers found reentry into civilian life uneasy, disabled veterans found it impossible. According to Marten, the public conversation about the disabled rarely dwelled on their suffering. Instead, civilians "tended [End Page 282] to focus on the veterans' helplessness and dependence" (77). Even immediately after the war, many northern civilians warned against providing extensive aid to disabled veterans out of sentimental patriotism. Many Union veterans believed, however, that their service had forced them to fall behind civilians economically, leading them to insist on veterans' preference and pensions. Thus began a clash between the competing ideals of national gratitude, independence, and the role of the government that continued throughout the close of the nineteenth century.
Marten is careful to remind us that the...