The Magazine

Memories of War

And the battle for posterity.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Of special interest, given the horrendous human cost of the war, is Drew Gilpin Faust's discussion of the grim subject of reburial, "Battle over the Bodies." At the war's end, scores of thousands of the dead, Union and Confederate alike, awaited decent interment. The dead were often unidentified and layed at random, anonymously, in shallow temporary graves. The infamous Wilderness battlefield, where wild brushfires had tortured the wounded and dying on the day of battle, was littered with bones. Farmers, here and there, complained that their foraging hogs were unfit for use.

Under the National Cemeteries Act (1867) Congress made funds available for identification and reburial, at an average cost of $9.75, including coffin, according to one piquant statistic. Within four years, more than 300,000 of the Union fallen had been identified and reburied, often in new national cemeteries. But like so much of the aftermath of war, this heroic effort was asymmetrical, inasmuch as no comparable official provision was made for the Confederate dead. To the extent that they were cared for, it was by voluntary charities, usually by dedicated associations of Southern women.

Most of these essays, which otherwise explore such subjects as Civil War caricature, the early reputation of Robert E. Lee, and the postwar reputation, in Georgia, of William T. Sherman, and Walt Whitman's cryptic assertion that the "real war" would never be disclosed, are remarkably subdued, even anodyne.

In fact, the most passionate legacy of Civil War revisionism may well be behind us. It had less to do with the war than with what followed it, as the nation sought terms of reunion. By 1866 it was clear that the victorious Unionists (especially their congressional spokesmen that historians usually call "radicals") would not countenance Andrew Johnson's earnest but inept attempt to implement what he understood to be Lincoln's clement Reconstruction policy, "let 'em up easy." The spectacle of former Confederate officials and officers filing back into Washington, and political influence, on mild terms of executive pardon, proved indigestible. The ensuing reaction, sharpened by Johnson's obstreperous campaigning in the autumn elections of that year, generated a sharp swing toward severe Reconstruction policy. And that policy, in turn, in its ever-evolving phases, was to fuel violent controversy for an age--controversy so sharp that one essayist spoke famously of the "dark and bloody ground" of Reconstruction historiography.

It is, perhaps, another chapter of an old story. Grass, said Winston Churchill, grows easily over the battlefield, but over the scaffold, never. The shadow of the scaffold never fell over the American Civil War. But in the South it became an article of mythic faith that harsh Reconstruction was its moral equivalent. Just as, before secession, the argument over the extension of slavery was largely theoretical, often involving climes and terrains where slavery could never have flourished, so the most bitter argument over the legacy of the Civil War was less about what soldiers did to one another with guns than what politicians did to other regions with legislation and occupation. Reconstruction came to be thought of, certainly in the South and even elsewhere, as deliberately destructive and vindictive.

The classic articulation of that view was Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era, a tract of the 1930s by an eminent Democrat which served to obscure the unpleasant truth that the Democratic party had become, to a degree, the implicit guarantor of Jim Crow. It wasn't until what C. Vann Woodward called "the second reconstruction," the civil rights movement and the reanimation of the 14th Amendment, that an overdue revision, a "re-seeing" of Reconstruction, found constructive elements in it. The wonder is that this more balanced myth took almost a century to arrive. Perhaps the historians of the approaching sesquicentennial will elaborate.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, is the author of several books, including The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past.