- America's Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace by James Marten
James Tanner—Civil War veteran, political kingmaker, and popular orator—was very much a product of his time and place: his fame did not outlast the nineteenth century. Yet this makes him a fascinating subject for a historical biography that seeks to illuminate the particular preoccupations, activities, and attitudes that nourished his celebrity during his own era. In James Marten's fast-paced, gracefully written study, Tanner's life offers a unique vantage point for examining Gilded Age politics, society, and culture.
Born in a small village in New York State, Tanner entered the Union army at the age of seventeen and was promoted to corporal the following year—a rank he proudly claimed for the rest of his life. His regiment (the Eighty-Seventh New York Infantry) saw almost no battlefield service during his enlistment. But Tanner was unlucky enough to have both legs taken off below the knee by an exploding shell during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Marten vividly describes Tanner's experiences as he endured an operation, transportation northward, treatment for gangrene, and then life as a disabled veteran. He goes on to chart how Tanner threw himself into the study of stenography only a few months after the amputation of his legs, revealing the remarkable drive that marked the rest of his life. Having learned to walk on prosthetic limbs, Tanner worked in various state-government positions, got married, trained as a lawyer, and then secured a [End Page 722] position in the U.S. Custom House in Brooklyn. In this role, he made a name for himself as a plainspoken but enthralling public speaker—a talent he used in stumping for the Republican Party, which rewarded him with an appointment as tax collector of Brooklyn.
It was as a spokesman for white Union veterans, however, that Tanner gained public and political clout. In an era when the veteran vote helped decide elections, Marten explains, Tanner's popularity among veterans enabled him to become part of an "inner circle" of lawyers, newspapermen, and current and former politicians who "chose candidates and plotted" for the Republican Party (63). The substantial role he played in helping elect Benjamin Harrison to the presidency in 1888 saw Tanner appointed to the position of commissioner of pensions—a role he used to push for a dramatic expansion of veterans' pensions, causing a backlash that forced his removal only a year later (and turned Tanner into an enduring symbol of the Gilded Age spoils system). His career finally culminated in his election as national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the North's largest veterans organization.
Marten's lean biography packs in an immense amount of information and analysis while effortlessly carrying readers along. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading this work lies in its condensed detail, covering everything from the cauterization of wounds and the fitting of artificial limbs to the steps involved in filling out a pension application. Marten offers substantial historical evaluation throughout as well, but he subsumes it beneath the surface of his story. In detailing Tanner's political experience, for instance, Marten is also analyzing the way politics worked in this period: how voters cast their ballots, how campaigns operated, how patronage was distributed. In discussing Tanner's appeal among veterans, he is scrutinizing how celebrity was created at the time: through entrepreneurialism, the cultivation of political and press connections, and immense amounts of public lecturing. And in identifying Tanner's appeal among veterans, he adroitly unites his story with a series of larger themes, ranging from post-war concepts of manhood, citizenship, and veterans' political roles to Civil War memorialization. Marten's ability to cover such a wealth of detail and such a range of themes without sacrificing narrative pace means that his wonderful biography will appeal to generalist and specialist readers alike.
The one aspect of Tanner's life that I wish had been covered more...