Civil War Book Review: Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America

Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America
by James Marten

A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph 1862-1863 by Jeffry D. Wert

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (May 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807834769
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807834763

American mythology states that veterans of “good wars” reenter society with almost no problems.  These veterans ennobled by their service and loved by a grateful nation live out their lives as a national treasure.  The American Civil War is one of America’s “good wars” and the veterans enjoyed the benefits of such.

History is full of soldiers but silent on veterans.  Very very few books look at their experiences after the war, how active service affected them and societies reaction to them.  This book looks at veterans of the Civil War, how they readjusted, how society saw them and how they saw themselves.  The majority of the book is devoted to Union Veterans.  They are the ones that have “saved” their country and a government that is the beneficiary of their service.  This government has the ability to compensate and care for them.

For about 70 years, the care and compensation of Union veterans is the major item in the Federal budget.  Becoming a major expense creates political and social problems.  Much of the book is devoted to these problems and their impact on society.  In effect, Union veterans became the beneficiary of America’s first old age pension system.  Society’s gratitude for “saving the country” became uncertain as expenses increase.  This is not new history but the author presents multiple views resulting in a fresh approach.

During Reconstruction, disable Confederate veterans depend on local charity to survive.  As the South rebuilds, the states provide small pensions and homes for their needy veterans.  While never as generous as the Union system, these were welcome supplements.  The Southern veteran occupies a unique position as the embodiment of “The Lost Cause”, a living monument.  This feeling coupled with the lack of a pension system excused many of their problems.  The book is very successful in showing the contrast between public perceptions of veterans in the years following the war versus their actual lives.

The author is careful to state that the majority of veterans readjust with minimal problems and lead productive lives.  This is as true today as it was 145 years ago.  However, most men have some problems and a few have serious ones.  The men with serious problems are most likely to be noticed and recorded.  The Civil War is no exception and the book looks at multiple serious problems during the Gilded Age.  Hard statistics do not exist but derogatory references abound.  Good scholarship allows us to draw a realistic picture of maimed men grinding street organs or begging in doorways.  Drunks in old blue coats or addicts are common enough to become stock characters.

Old age creates a new set of disabilities and swindlers with the expansion of the pension system.  The two periods when “agents” abound are right after the war and when the majority enter old age.  Things have changed less than we like to think.  Money tends to bring out the worst in people.  This is as true then as now.

This is an excellent book, well written and very readable.  What could be a dry subject takes on a life of its’ own.  The author keeps the story moving, marshals his facts and never becomes judgmental.


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