James Marten: Not Just Fading Away: Civil War “Veteranizing”

As we look ahead to the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, we welcome a guest post from James Marten, author of the brand new book Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America. In this post, he discusses the earliest Memorial Days (then known as Decoration Days) and the lives of Civil War veterans. This article is crossposted from the UNC Press Civil War 150 blog.–ellen

Decoration of Soldiers’ Graves, Post 4, Grand Army of the Republic in Keene, New Hampshire (Keene Public Library)

Civil War veterans were the centerpiece of Gilded Age commemorations of Decoration Day (later called Memorial Day). They marched or rode in parades, delivered patriotic speeches, and generally soaked in the admiration of a grateful nation. Perhaps inevitably, however, in between formal celebrations, the public tended to overlook veterans. Yet for the old soldiers, every day was Memorial Day, as the graying saviors of the Union and defenders of the Confederacy refused to limit their own commemorations to one or two days per year.

In many ways, the less formal activities of Civil War veterans’ organizations foreshadowed the twentieth century activities of Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts around the United States. In towns large and small, these organizations—founded in 1899 and 1919, respectively—created local posts that hosted monthly meetings, parties and game nights, fish fries and, in rural regions, pheasant and deer suppers, and sometimes opened taverns and eateries in their post buildings. The Legion and VFW became, in those respects, social fraternities and community hangouts.

During its heyday in the 1880s and the 1890s, the Grand Army of the Republic—the primary veterans’ organization for Union soldiers—functioned in much the same way. With over 400,000 members, the GAR was organized into state and local posts. Large “encampments,” as they called their reunions, were held annually at the national and state levels, but local chapters met as often as twice a month, sometimes in rented rooms, but often in rather grand GAR halls, which included meeting rooms, libraries, and miniature museums featuring photographs, artifacts, and documents from the war. (Check out a few surviving GAR Halls in Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota.)

In addition to periodic “campfires,” where the public was invited to hear men tell war stories and share “soldiers’ meals” of beans and hardtack served on tin plates, GAR chapters also held events to raise money for poor soldiers’ funds. A Worcester GAR post sponsored a nearly annual production of the patriotic tear-jerker “The Drummer Boy,” which was very loosely based on the story of John Clem. Confederate veterans organized their commemorative lives in much the same way, with local and state organizations and reunions beginning in the 1870s, and national encampments held annually after the 1889 formation of United Confederate Veterans.

Over and above their institutional activities, some veterans spent much of their time “veteranizing,” in the words of the writer Sherwood Anderson, whose own father, Irwin, had served unremarkably in the Union army. Irwin was an enthusiastic member of the GAR who participated in every parade he could find, but he also entertained crowds large and small with his tales of the war. Sometimes he would simply take over a conversation in a crowded living room; at others he and a comrade would render off-key versions of patriotic and soldiers’ songs before a paying audience. He wasn’t much of a singer, he barely made ends meet as a sign painter, and his son resented the father’s absences and seeming obsession with the war. Yet in his reminiscences the younger Anderson acknowledges having come to an understanding about his father’s desperation: “He would never be a hero again,” he wrote. “All the rest of his life” would never measure up to those few exciting years of his youth.

James Tanner was a far better known “professional veteran.” Known to all as “Corporal Tanner,” he parlayed his tragic loss of both legs below the knee at Second Manassas and his connections in the New York Republican Party into sinecures in government jobs and a prominent role in the GAR. He was most famous for his brief tenure as Commissioner of Pensions during the Harrison administration in 1889; he allegedly said “God help the surplus” when he entered office and was eventually fired because of his enthusiastic support for raising rates and easing the application process. He later made a small fortune as a pension attorney and early in the twentieth century was elected national commander in chief of the GAR. But his fame spread even further because of his public speaking. For decades he spoke at GAR gatherings large and small, Chautauqua programs, fundraisers, church events, and countless other venues. His most popular lecture, which he delivered literally hundreds of times throughout the country, was “Soldier Life: The Grave and the Gay.”

Most old soldiers probably preferred to “fade away,” in the words of the old army song made famous by Douglas MacArthur nearly a century later, but they no doubt were relieved that at least a few of their comrades made sure that the easily distracted Gilded Age public remained aware of their service and their sacrifice.

James Marten is professor of history at Marquette University and author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America, The Children’s Civil War, and Texas Divided: Loyalty and Dissent in the Lone Star State, 1856-1874.