- Guest Editor's IntroductionReconsidering Civil War Veterans
In 2015, James Marten, Brian Matthew Jordan, Barbara Gannon, and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh offered broad analyses of veterans within a national and global context in this journal's first special issue on veterans. Their work reflected a strong body of scholarship that has continued to grow and enrich our understanding of veterans' readjustment to civilian life, the challenges they faced as their age advanced and their health declined, and the battles they waged over how their service would be remembered and who would tell that story.
But for all of this rich scholarship, significant holes and flawed interpretations remain in our work on veterans, which this special issue seeks to fill. Scholars are well versed, for example, in the tensions that existed between northern civilians and Union soldiers who came home. But how did this relationship collapse? It began with eager, devoted aid workers volunteering time, energy, and capital to the plight of the soldier; with civilians raising funds for hospitals and supplies; with parades and meals prepared for men heading off to war. It ended in deeply entrenched resentment and miscommunication. That disconnect inspired Sarah Gardner's article, which opens this issue. What caused such angst and such—from our perspective—coldness in civilian activists devoted to veterans in need? One source of that friction, Gardner observes, is Americans' talent for honoring their battlefield dead and their habitual failure to care for soldiers who survive. Victorian concerns over the degrading influence of charity partly explains this failure, Gardner agrees, but her close study of a Pennsylvania chapter of the U.S. Sanitary Commission reveals something more. These were not simply Gilded Age reformers frowning at veterans who failed to meet society's expectations. Relief workers truly struggled to reconcile their drive to uplift with their compulsion to maintain a stable society, but in the end, they sacrificed empathy in the name of stability.
By examining the metamorphosis of soldier to veteran—a puzzling process when, in the cases of most Confederates, there was no formal [End Page 1] demobilization—Caroline Janney's essay spotlights another gap in our understanding of veterans. Janney follows the soldiers of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from Appomattox Court House through the post-surrender period, tracing moments of continued military order and discipline as soldier-veterans journeyed home as companies and even brigades. But that discipline was tenuous and often went unenforced by officers who, Janney observes, had no official authority and who, along with their men, resented the myriad symbols of what Union victory wrought: the unraveling of slavery, debilitating poverty, and armed occupation by both white and black Union soldiers.
Kurt Hackemer shifts our attention to Dakota Territory as he seeks to understand what drove veterans west after their Civil War service. Scholars have tied this movement to military service, but until now there has been little evidence to support such claims. Through a close statistical analysis of a special census of more than six thousand veterans, he finds that some men were escaping lingering wartime trauma after especially hard service, but in other veterans, Hackemer uncovers patterns of mobility that started before the war. In these cases, prewar experiences affected veterans' postwar lives as much as their military service. We should not, Hackemer warns, grant too much causation to a war that was a brief, though exceptionally intense, period of a veteran's life.
Mississippi's Confederate home—known as "Beauvoir"—inspired my own essay. Beauvoir challenges historians' understanding of Confederate veteran facilities as places where aging men sat in fading gray uniforms, isolated from society, and waiting to die. That flawed narrative is the result of an overreliance on a Lost Cause framework to interpret these homes. My close analysis of the gender and racial diversity of Beauvoir's residents and administrators at this state-funded, state-run facility reveal that New South modernization and segregation shaped Beauvoir just as much as its Lost Cause roots.
Ian Isherwood closes this special issue with a review essay that brings two fields awash in veteran studies in conversation with one another. In a...