Gettysburg College Prof. Brian Jordan '09 authored a piece on the struggles of Union veterans and how their experiences can be applied to today's veterans that appeared in the Sept. 15 New York Times Sunday Review.
His piece is the fifth in a seven-part series sponsored by Gettysburg College, and designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and generate thoughtful discourse about its legacy.
The full text of Jordan’s piece is below.
Romanticized images of past wars cloud stark realities of veterans’ struggles
On a humid July afternoon in 1913 at Gettysburg, Union veterans collected along the stone fence on Cemetery Ridge – the very spot where a half-century before, they had repulsed Confederate troops in the battle’s cataclysmic final act. Now, the bewhiskered men who had worn the Union blue waited for their enemy once more. Aged ex-Confederates crossed the field in front of them, but this time, upon reaching the stone-wall, Union veterans extended their wrinkled hands and doffed their hats in a gesture of conciliation. Unfazed by the past, they forgave their former enemies – reveling in the triumph of a nation reunited.
Americans are familiar with romanticized scenes like this one, captured on creaky newsreels. For generations, they have assumed that the survivors of the Union armies beat a hasty retreat from the Civil War and that time healed even the war’s most hideous wounds. Many historians have accused Union veterans of treasonously abandoning the cause of emancipation and the fledgling promise of “a new birth of freedom.”
Yet what we have too often overlooked is the other “republic of suffering”: the hundreds of thousands of ordinary men who, after Shiloh and Antietam, would never be the same again. Maimed soldiers and the skeletal silhouettes of Andersonville survivors have been difficult for Americans to confront, but we cannot understand the Civil War without the heartrending tales of Union veterans. Nor can we understand reconciliation without realizing that these men could never forget the horror of combat.
For veterans chastened by guilt and afflicted with sorrow, the Civil War did not end at Appomattox. Thousands developed addictions to the rum and laudanum they had first tasted in field hospitals. Homelessness, unemployment, and destitution became realities for many, especially those shuffling along with ill-fitting wooden legs. Worst of all, the tragedy of Reconstruction – along with the contemptuous sneers of northern civilians, who embraced a spirit of reconciliation immediately after Appomattox and had little patience for old soldiers – urged Billy Yank to ask what his fight had achieved after all. Civil War veteranhood, in other words, looked nothing like that July afternoon at Gettysburg in 1913.
Much like the Civil War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unprecedented conflicts with new tactics, weaponry, and enemies. And much like the Civil War, the veterans of today’s conflicts are attempting to explain what, exactly, their sacrifices achieved to a skeptical public. While history cannot predict the future, it should remind us that the next few decades are going to be challenging ones for our nation and its veterans. Already, more than 26,000 veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan wars are homeless; thousands suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries have turned to drugs and alcohol; divorce and suicide rates have soared to record highs; and bureaucratic delays have kept some veterans waiting interminably for promised benefits.
These veterans, too, are fighting an unending war. Presidential declarations aside, our military adventures overseas are not “over”; they are only beginning. As we approach the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial, we need to think seriously -- not only about how wars end, but also about our obligations to those oft-unsung heroes who defend our freedom.
Brian Matthew Jordan '09 is adjunct instructor of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. His upcoming book is Embattled Memories: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War.
Find out more about Gettysburg College's Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War and the New York Times series at www.gettysburg.edu/cw2013.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Nikki Rhoads, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803
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