To the Soldiers of the Union
How quickly do memories fade? Were the citizens of the United States forgetting about the Civil War in the immediate decades following the close of the conflict? Union veterans certainly thought so. In fact, they expressed a palpable anxiety when it came to remembrance…when it came to etching permanently their trials on to the national narrative.
This December 1877 column from the National Tribune, a veterans’ publication, illustrates the troubling perception of memories fading – not the memories of those who fought and bled for Union, but those of the citizenry in general:
The events of the war, and the men of the war, are fast fading from the public attention. Its history is growing to be an “Old, Old Story.” Public interest is weakening day by day. The memory of march, and camp, and battle-field, of the long and manly endurance, of the superb and uncomplaining courage, of the mass of sacrifice that redeemed the Nation, is fast dying out. Those who rejoice in the liberty and peace secured by the soldier’s suffering and privation, accept the benefits, but deny or forget the benefactor.
Reflections such as these were typical; veterans seized the initiative and launched a number of campaigns to ensure that what they saw happening was corrected. Patriotic instruction spearheaded by the GAR, for instance, informed school age children of the causes and consequences of the fight to suppress rebellion. How do we gauge the success of their efforts? In the context of Civil War commemorations coexisting with an exponential increase in population, can we too sense retrospectively that veterans were losing touch with the national character – especially since many new arrivals to the American shores had no real personal connection to the Civil War? Did Americans forget (or in certain instances, really never know) the benefactor?
I will be working through some of these questions and addressing the old intersecting with the new in upcoming posts. So stay tuned.