- Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America by James Marten
In Sing Not War, James Marten surveys the social impact of the American Civil War upon its belligerent societies and the men who served. It is no easy task: in relative terms the war was the second largest mobilization to occur in American history and in absolute terms the deadliest. The war seemingly touched everyone and everything in American society, and the sheer complexity and depth of the historical record makes any specific analytical strategy suspect and any conclusions about the war’s aftermath necessarily tentative and provisional.
Over the past fifteen years, however, a substantial number of social histories have appeared to help guide Marten in developing a splendid synthesis in the emerging field of postwar studies. These works have attempted to examine the effect of the Civil War by examining veterans’ organizations or the federal government’s evolving pension policies and the manner in which remuneration changed lives and communities, for example, while others have analyzed the memorials and rituals that emerged from the war or the changing constructions of disability and the emotional impact of the war upon its soldiers. However laudable the desire for precision in these monographs may be, the reader can end up aching for some kind of gestalt.
Sing Not War gets us much closer by undertaking a keen reading of the literature and critically engaging these scholars as well as offering insights culled from [End Page 225] archival research. Marten also utilizes masculinity as a category of analysis masterfully: rather than being a conceit imposed upon evidence or data, Union and Confederate veterans engaged in a frank discussion about the relationship between manliness, service, and the state regardless of region, rank or social status. In a process sometimes disparagingly referred to as “veteranizing,” wartime experiences, for better or worse, remained an integral part of their identity for the rest of their lives, and as a new generation came of age, the contrast between veterans and civilians became starker, rather than fading away. The long-term effects of the war—whether economic, medical, or social—played themselves out and continued to define courage and manhood over the course of the Gilded Age.
Marten organizes this work around four near-universal themes: the incidence of disability among the cohort, the commodification of veteran status, the institutionalization of soldiers, and the alienation that former soldiers experienced in postwar culture. Each process had its own rituals and consequences: Grand Army of the Republic encampments, for example, became engines of economic development as well as reenactments; soldiers’ homes became experiments in social welfare provision and forerunners to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Pension Bureau’s records became an early source of actuarial data on American morbidity and mortality. Patterns emerged: while Union veterans in aggregate were economically better off than their civilian or Confederate counterparts due to payments from the state, former soldiers and sailors suffered from higher incidences of alcoholism and debilitation and were paradoxically viewed with both reverence and suspicion in postwar America.
These nuanced distinctions between different experiences are a particularly welcome corrective to a literature that has widely utilized the records left by soldier’s homes, the Bureau of Pensions, and other institutions that used their resources to help the damaged and infirm among the veterans. Most men got on with their lives. Persuasively, Marten argues for a Southern experience that remained relatively static as former Confederates assumed the burden of personifying the Lost Cause; Union veterans, caught up in an expanding economy, received conflicting messages that honored their service to the nation, pandered to their interests, and satirized as well as celebrated them, leading to a more complicated understanding of the veteran’s role in American politics and culture. While Marten frankly admits that including race as an analytical category would have further complicated his work, more evidence might have been included here from African American veterans, if only...