Civil War historians who bother to look to the years beyond the war talk a whole lot about reconciliation. The consensus: veterans whitewashed the memory of the war (excising issues such as slavery and emancipation) for the sake of a peaceful reconciliation. Thanks to shared racism that reached across the borders of North and South, commemoration of the war was was pretty much free from controversy. What historian David Blight argues turned out to be a Civil War memory on "southern terms."
Poppycock. Even a cursory glance at the historical record illustrates beyond any doubt (to my mind) that veterans from both sides were still wedded to this particular divisive issue. But that's a story for another day. Trust me...I'll get to that in another post.
But with all the academic talk (and talk...and talk...and talk...) about race and reunion (granted, a profoundly important topic), something important often gets overlooked: soldiers of the Union enlisted, fought, and died for...let's see if I got this straight...UNION!!!!
Oh yeah, that little thing. And do you think they forgot about it during their peaceful reconciliatory commemorative events? Nope - not even a little. As a matter of fact - and I mean documented fact - veterans celebrated the suppression of TREASON (yes, our friends in the gentile South - you know Ashley Wilkes and the like - committed treason). They gave ex-Rebels a hard time for trying to destroy the country. Veterans suggested that the rebellion was the greatest conspiracy of all times and they were hell bent on preserving that single idea for posterity.
“The Rebellion,” argued Edward McPherson before a gathering of Michigan veterans in 1889, “had not a redeeming feature. It was wholly bad. It was organized as a conspiracy, by stealth. It had its origin in passion, not reason. It was based on a pretense, both false and fraudulent in fact. It was carried on in heat, not with the deliberation which befits a great movement for vindication of rights or redress of wrongs.”
How's that for an uncontested reconciliation? Have you ever wondered what those Union veterans were thinking as they awkwardly shook hands with former Rebels across Gettysburg's stone wall? Here's just a tiny little snippet from my upcoming book on the subject that might give you an idea:
'From the perspectives of many Union veterans, Confederate flag waving former Rebels, worshiping before the alter of secession and state rights and paying homage to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon, were unwelcome additions to the national image. Union men found no places in which the celebratory contributions of their treasonous former enemies could enhance the national commemorative vision with any real validity. After all, according to Union veterans, the appearances of former Rebels, many of whom continued to don Confederate gray and parade in military style, resurrected the memories of a period where Americans had tried to destroy the United States – a cause hardly worth celebrating. The culture of reconciliation, while prevalent, did not dissuade Union army veterans from harsh critiques of their quondam enemies. How could northerners honor any vestiges of the Confederate cause, asked the National Tribune, commemorated by “organizations of the very men who did all in their power to destroy the Government, and whose only bond of Union is comradeship in that terrible disloyalty?”'
So if anybody tells you that Civil War commemorations were nothing but a bunch of grizzled old soldiers with nothing much to say - just remind them...for Union vets, TREASON was a very big deal.