Our March 2019 issue is a special issue on veterans, with Susannah Ural serving as guest editor. Below you will find her note of introduction. To access these articles, you can purchase a copy of the issue or subscribe to the journal. It will also be available (in March) on Project Muse.
In 2015, James Marten, Brian Matthew Jordan, Barbara Gannon, and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh offered broad analyses of veterans within a national and global context in this journal’s first special issue on veterans. Their work reflected a strong body of scholarship that has continued to grow and enrich our understanding of veterans’ readjustment to civilian life, the challenges they faced as their age advanced and their health declined, and the battles they waged over how their service would be remembered and who would tell that story.
But for all of this rich scholarship, significant holes and flawed interpretations remain in our work on veterans, which this special issue seeks to fill. Scholars are well versed, for example, in the tensions that existed between northern civilians and Union soldiers who came home. But how did this relationship collapse? It began with eager, devoted aid workers volunteering time, energy, and capital to the plight of the soldier; with civilians raising funds for hospitals and supplies; with parades and meals prepared for men heading off to war. It ended in deeply entrenched resentment and miscommunication. That disconnect inspired Sarah Gardner’s article, which opens this issue. What caused such angst and such—from our perspective—coldness in civilian activists devoted to veterans in need? One source of that friction, Gardner observes, is Americans’ talent for honoring their battlefield dead and their habitual failure to care for soldiers who survive. Victorian concerns over the degrading influence of charity partly explains this failure, Gardner agrees, but her close study of a Pennsylvania chapter of the U.S. Sanitary Commission reveals something more. These were not simply Gilded Age reformers frowning at veterans who failed to meet society’s expectations. Relief workers truly struggled to reconcile their drive to uplift with their compulsion to maintain a stable society, but in the end, they sacrificed empathy in the name of stability.
By examining the metamorphosis of soldier to veteran—a puzzling process when, in the cases of most Confederates, there was no formal demobilization—Caroline Janney’s essay spotlights another gap in our understanding of veterans. Janney follows the soldiers of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from Appomattox Court House through the post-surrender period, tracing moments of continued military order and discipline as soldier-veterans journeyed home as companies and even brigades. But that discipline was tenuous and often went unenforced by officers who, Janney observes, had no official authority and who, along with their men, resented the myriad symbols of what Union victory wrought: the unraveling of slavery, debilitating poverty, and armed occupation by both white and black Union soldiers.
The entire Editor’s note can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.