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  • When the Hurlyburly's Done / When the Battle's Lost and WonService, Suffering, and Survival of Civil War and Great War Veterans
  • Ian Isherwood (bio)

Marching in the Gettysburg Liberty Parade in May 1918 was a drum corps consisting entirely of Civil War veterans.1 As local citizens demonstrated their patriotism—notably with the Kaiser hanging in effigy—the old soldiers helped keep the pace for two thousand citizens who turned out to vigorously support the Great War. It was no doubt a moving moment, the nation's largest veteran demographic encouraging and supporting the next generation of soldiers to fight for cause and country in a very different war waged on a very different continent. Though fifty years separated the trenches of Petersburg from those of the western front, for one moment, the men who fought in the nation's bloodiest war marched alongside doughboys who were training, on a battlefield of that war, to fight in France.2

It is common to see the two conflicts as though existing in separate historical worlds. One is distinctly nineteenth century in its conduct and in its soldiers' experiences. The other is decidedly more modern; it was fought with bolt-action rifles, high explosives, and during it, new technologies like tanks, airplanes, and gas came into their own as weapons of war. To see the Civil War and Great War as similar invites obvious criticism. But soldiers who fought in each could identify common characteristics of their experiences. Soldiers of both wars knew the deep bonds of service forged through fire that carried over into the uncertain postwar world; both knew the burden of survival and living with mental or physical reminders of their service; and they both knew what it was like to survive, memorialize old comrades, and guard the memory of their war generation for decades afterward. When the doughboys came back from France, they shared spaces of memory—Memorial Day parades and Armistice Day observances—with veterans who understood what it was like to come home from a major war. [End Page 109]

In both the United States and Great Britain scholars of the Civil War and the First World War have increased their attention to veterans' history, and, despite the major differences between the two conflicts, historians approach these subjects using similar language and methods.3 This essay considers comparatively this literature according to three tropes common in the historiography of both wars: service, suffering, and survival. First, scholars in each field have focused on how veterans created a sense of group identity—defined here as a war generation—based on the shared experience of military service.4 Veterans organized, lobbied, wrote, and sought care from one another and within their communities. Second, scholars are particularly interested in the concept of suffering, a subject that has grown in influence due to a wider discussion of veterans and mental health. Both war generations returned men and women who lived through traumatic events, and historians of the Civil War and the First World War have built a substantial literature around the psychology of traumatic experiences, one that has fostered significant debate. The last concept for analysis is the notion of survival. In both cases, by surviving and participating in memorialization, veterans were important to the legacy of their wars. Veterans served as agents of memory for decades; they reflected on and wrote about their experiences, erected monuments to lost comrades, and participated in social rituals acknowledging their status within society. Through their service, suffering, and survival, veterans became powerful reminders of their wars; they helped frame how later scholars interpreted both the Civil War and First World War as it was—and as it has been—experienced and remembered.

Though there are general similarities in veteran experiences in the modern period, it is important to acknowledge that the concept of the "universal veteran" is inherently problematic.5 Each conflict is obviously distinct, and every society has its own culturally constructed ways of understanding war. Yet, the way historians write about veterans across the two fields reflects parallel themes, indicating researchers' practical impulse to use similar methodologies and tools to conceptualize veterans across time and space. While veterans' experiences...


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pp. 109-132
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