A new book deals with a subject I’ve been musing on lately: The effects of the war on the social life of postbellum America. Millions of men coming home – some with severe physical and emotional scars – to a world that was profoundly changed. This one sounds like a good read.
Jordan’s handling of civilian behavior toward Union veterans amounts to an unsparing indictment. Widespread callousness consigned former soldiers to “a living ‘republic of suffering.’ . . . Suspended between the dead and the living, the rest of their days were disturbed by memories of the war.” He allocates considerable attention to amputees and former prisoners of war. “Legions of men missing arms and legs,” he contends, posed a special problem for civilians because “throbbing stumps weeping a foul brew of pus and blood were hardly an advertisement for the kind of glorious, sanitized war the public wanted to remember.” Ex-prisoners suffered “enduring psychological injuries” and sought help from comrades who had shared their wartime nightmare. But “while ex-prisoner-of-war associations sustained prison survivors, they had scarcely moved the hearts and minds of the northern public. If anything, ex-prisoner meetings contributed to even greater public suspicion and scorn.” A reluctant nation did create a pension system (though many Americans came to view it “as a problem — not a paradigm”), and national and state soldiers’ homes assisted some of the poorest and least functional veterans.
Former soldiers offered one another empathy and help. They created the Grand Army of the Republic , the largest veterans’ organization and an increasingly powerful lobbying group, which Jordan describes as “one of the most significant social-welfare organizations of the nineteenth century.” They also wrote memoirs and unit histories, gathered at reunions, and erected monuments on battlefields and elsewhere — all to keep alive the memory of their sacrifice.