In the Civil War’s aftermath, alcoholism, unemployment, mental illness, and suicide were chronic problems among the old soldiers who frequented too many saloons and jails, as well as the public spaces of train stations and town centers. Veterans with the “empty sleeve” were very common sights in Gilded Age America. What the public did not so often see, however, was the social and psychological devastation in many veterans’ lives, which scholars have only recently begun to explore. For many survivors of deadly prison camps or of lingering diseases and wounds experienced in the campaigns of 1863-65, the war truly possessed them as an “unending” trauma.
On an evening in 1888, “a slender, tobacco-spitting misanthrope,” only known as “Charley the Boatman,” sliced his throat in the boathouse of the Milwaukee Soldiers’ Home, surrounded by the silvery wads of tin foil that he had passed countless hours shaping into “cannon balls.” In the winter of 1890, Emily Lippincott, who worked as a maid at the Illinois State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, described her repeated encounter with “an insane man” who was fighting “his battles over again.” He “fought the rebels all day,” she said, “tearing his bed and clothes until exhausted.” The Union veteran, Patrick Cleary, lived on his brother-in-law’s farm in Hollandtown, Wisconsin. In 1871, his relatives described him talking “in a rambling, incoherent way,” often standing with a blank stare, muttering to himself about George McClellan, General Grant, and a certain Captain Chase. William Cunningham, himself a veteran, and who also boarded on the same farm, remembered being aroused from sleep by his agitated former comrade. Into the ground behind a barn, Cleary had pounded a row of wooden stakes to represent “an imaginary enemy,” and by moonlight, would drill a white bull dog and command him to charge the stakes and fight the supposed rebels.”
Even veterans who managed to keep their bodies and wits intact often proved unable or unwilling to escape the pull of the war. They created numerous magazines, attended post meetings, and wrote a blizzard of reminiscences and regimental histories in which they forged a culture of memory, of military detail, of mutual recognition and heroism, of communal support. Civil War veterans, drawing and pouring over their countless hand-drawn maps, arguing about old campaigns in letters and in sketches and speeches they delivered to each other, raising funds for monuments to their own units, were themselves the first Civil war “buffs,” a tradition passed on now through at least six or seven generations of readers, re-enactors, and Civil War roundtable members.
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The Reconstruction era, stretching from 1865 to 1877, was one long referendum on the meaning and memory of the verdicts reached at Appomattox. Differing visions of America’s future were at stake. Well before the war ended, Lincoln proposed a plan of Reconstruction that would be rapid and relatively lenient to former Confederates, and which would include at least the beginnings of black voting rights. Lincoln greatly feared recurrent guerrilla warfare and hoped to keep Reconstruction policy firmly under presidential authority. Hence, his attempts to create new southern state governments with as few as 10 percent of their “loyal” citizens taking oaths to the United States, drafting new constitutions, and then gaining readmission to the Union under executive power. But even before his death, Lincoln faced strong opposition from the “Radicals” in his own Republican party, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives. The Radicals fashioned a very different vision of Reconstruction—harsher, longer, and under Congressional control. They treated the ex-Confederate states as “conquered provinces” legitimately taken in war; no state would therefore be readmitted to the Union without federal military occupation, a majority of white voters taking loyalty oaths, and much broader guarantees of black civil and political rights.