J. Matthew Gallman on Heroes and Hypocrites: War Talk 150 Years Ago and Today

Over on our CivilWar150 site, J. Matthew Gallman, author of Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, discusses how the public scrutiny of those who profit from war versus those who fight in it has a longstanding history in America. He writes:

Today stories periodically surface of public figures who have been claiming—and even wearing—military decorations that they had not earned. Nearly ten years ago George W. Bush signed the “Stolen Valor Act of 2005” to punish such fraud. When that legislation was ruled unconstitutional, Congress passed a recrafted “Stolen Valor Act of 2013,” signed by Barack Obama. Clearly, profiting from falsified bravery was not something to be taken lightly.

During the election of 2004, one candidate’s military service in Vietnam came under such harsh scrutiny (I am no expert, but it seemed unfair and inaccurate to me), that the term “swiftboating” was born. He lost. The other candidate’s military service in the Texas National Guard received some scrutiny as well, although much of that seemed to concern whether he served properly as opposed to where he served. Meanwhile, pundits and antiwar critics coined the term “chickenhawk” to describe folks whose new enthusiasm for wars appeared unseemly in contrast to how they behaved when they were of military age.

The public conversation that emerged in the Union states during the Civil War meshes well with these contemporary discussions. The greatest scorn was reserved for the dishonest charlatans who sought to profit from a war where they had not shared in the risks. A few months after the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run, New York’s Vanity Fair published a public letter directed to a certain “young gentleman in Broadway” who had taken to walking up and down the city’s streets in a fake uniform, accepting admiring glances from men and women alike. “Don’t you think it is about time you took off that uniform?” the letter demanded. Although serving honorably in the Texas National Guard might generally have been seen as appropriate service during an unpopular war, Civil War cartoonists loved mocking men who served in the “Home Guard” while dining at fancy restaurants and staying clear of harm’s way.

Cartoonists for New York-based Vanity Fair enjoyed ridiculing the local elites who paraded around in uniforms but spent much for their time dining at the city's fashionable Delmonico's restaurant. This series of six drawings plays on the idea that these faux soldiers are engaged in defending "Fort Delmonico," down to the "Grand Charge" at the end of the evening. Vanity Fair, November 23, 1861, 232. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Cartoonists for New York-based Vanity Fair enjoyed ridiculing the local elites who paraded around in uniforms but spent much for their time dining at the city’s fashionable Delmonico’s restaurant. This series of six drawings plays on the idea that these faux soldiers are engaged in defending “Fort Delmonico,” down to the “Grand Charge” at the end of the evening. Vanity Fair, November 23, 1861, 232. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Read the full post, “On Heroes and Hypocrites: War Talk 150 Years Ago and Today,” at uncpresscivilwar150.com.