Union veterans in postwar reconciliation… giving up ground won?

Posted on January 1, 2011 by


As this cartoon suggests, in the 1880s, the very thought of returning Confederate battleflags to the Southern states was not well received by Union veterans.

Keith Harris has an interesting post up today, discussing how G.A.R. members saw Robert E. Lee in postwar remembrance. Between this and their reaction toward the return of Confederate battleflags, one would think that, though interested in participating in gestures of reconciliation, Union veterans were unwilling to give up ground gained so easily forget the sacrifices made in the name of preserving the Union.

Still, some today are of the opinion that Union veterans, by virtue of their participation in Blue-Gray reunions, were willing to let old “bygones be bygones” based on a warrior-to-warrior level of respect. While Union veterans may have participated in such reunions, and such respect did exist, did this really mean that Union veterans were willing to forsake their sacrifices, and most especially the memory of those former comrades who had made the ultimate sacrifice during the war?

William Hewitt, ca. 1860

In fact, some Union veterans went beyond attending reunions, and were present at the dedications of monuments honoring former Confederate leaders. In 1891, ten thousand Union veterans were reported as present at the unveiling of a monument to Stonewall Jackson, in Lexington, Virginia. Although the number of Union vets present seems likely exaggerated, the report as presented by the Charlottesville Chronicle appears to have struck a nerve with at least one Union veteran who did not participate. Union veteran William Hewitt made known, in Chapter 12 of his History of the Twelfth West Virginia Infantry (available via Linda Cunningham Fluharty’s fantastic website about that regiment), that he wasn’t at all happy about this, especially considering the utterance made by former Confederate Gen. Jubal Early,

If I am ever known to repudiate the cause for which Lee fought and Jackson died, may the lightning of heaven blast me, and the scorn of all brave men and good women be my portion.

The Chronicle reported that his statement caused the 20,000 in attendance to break out in a cheer… and that would mean that half of those present participated in this cheering. Of this, Hewitt remarked,

The Jackson statue of 1891, at the site of Jackson's relocated grave.

While the loyal sentiment of the land thus suffers the inculcation of treason, and itself to be insulted by demonstrations like that of the unveiling of the monument referred to, and others of similar character in honor of late Rebels or the cause for which they fought, by those who lately bore arms against the government – there is no obligation of good feeling or of fraternity that demands of Union soldiers the countenancing and aiding of these traitor-breeding demonstrations, by their presence at them. It is to be hoped that the country is to be spared the humiliating spectacle of many more such disgusting manifestations of falsity on the part of the Union soldiers to the cause for which they fought, as that it had to witness at the unveiling of the monument erected to the memory of “Stonewall” Jackson at Lexington, Va.

Hewitt also noted…

Big as this country is it ought to be too little to give room for any display of honor to the Rebel flag, the Lost Cause, or their champions, dead or alive. Therefore, no soldier who would be faithful to his country and the cause for which he fought should join in any ceremony of decorating Rebel graves, of holding reunions with Rebels, or of putting up monuments to them…

A few years since Gen. Sherman, at a Soldiers’ reunion said that it was commendable to decorate Union soldiers’ graves, to encourage reunions and to put up soldiers’ monuments, as to do these things was to create and nurture a patriotic sentiment. Granting the truth of this, it follows then as the night follows the day that to take part in these or similar ceremonies, when done in honor of or with Rebels distinctively as such, in contradistinction to being Union soldiers or citizens, is to engender and to nurture disloyalty. No Union soldier should do it. The reason given by those of them who do so, is that they wish to remove the animosities of the war, and to cultivate a fraternal feeling between the sections. The motive is good, but is it not paying too dearly for kindly feeling and fraternal regard when they are obtained at the cost of the inculcation of disloyalty?

Therefore, I’m not certain I agree with Keith, that “Union veterans embraced reconciliation – but on their own terms. They made sure to remind Americans (as did Confederate veterans) of exactly who, from their perspective, was right and who was wrong”. True, True, the idea of returning flags didn’t go over well, and, if we look at the rhetoric in these reunions, we can see that they did continue to show that their cause was the one in the right. But then, Union veterans did participate in events honoring Confederate heroes, and by so doing, may have compromised sacrifices made in the name of the Union, during the war. Indeed, the presence of Union veterans at the dedications of monuments to Jackson and others merits closer attention.

This leaves me with some questions. For one, what truly was the consensus among those who had sacrificed so much in the name of preserving the Republic? Secondly, are those today, who interpret the willingness of Union veterans to join with Confederate veterans in reunions as accepting of Confederate heroes, spreading a misunderstanding of what these reunions meant? Finally, what are the implications of an unclear understanding of these reunions in relation to the Sesquicentennial, when we will see descendants of Union veterans joining with descendants of Confederate veterans in various commemorative events focused on those who made sacrifices for the Confederate cause? What would the Union veterans think of this?