New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture

New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture

New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture

New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture

Synopsis

This intriguing exploration of the post-Civil War period through its fiction and nonfiction illuminates how the era spawned a new understanding of war veterans that lives on today.

Scholars of the Civil War era have commonly assumed that veterans of the Union and Confederate armies effortlessly melted back into society and that they adjusted to the demands of peacetime with little or no difficulty. Yet the path these soldiers followed on the road to reintegration was far more tangled. New Men unravels the narrative of veteran reentry into civilian life and exposes the growing gap between how former soldiers saw themselves and the representations of them created by late-nineteenth century American society. In the early years following the Civil War, the concept of the "veteran" functioned as a marker for what was assumed by soldiers and civilians alike to be a temporary social status that ended definitively with army demobilization and the successful attainment of civilian employment. But in later postwar years this term was reconceptualized as a new identity that is still influential today. It came to be understood that former soldiers had crossed a threshold through their experience in the war, and they would never be the same: They had become new men. Uncovering the tension between veterans and civilians in the postwar era adds a new dimension to our understanding of the legacy of the Civil War. Reconstruction involved more than simply the road to reunion and its attendant conflicts over race relations in the United States. It also pointed toward the frustrating search for a proper metaphor to explain what soldiers had endured.

A provocative engagement with literary history and historiography, New Men challenges the notion of the Civil War as "unwritten" and alters our conception of the classics of Civil War literature. Organized chronologically and thematically, New Men coherently blends an analysis of a wide variety of fictional and nonfictional narratives. Writings are discussed in revelatory pairings that illustrate various aspects of veteran reintegration, with a chapter dedicated to literature describing the reintegration experiences of African Americans in the Union Army. New Men is at once essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the origins of our concept of the "veteran" and a book for our times. It is an invitation to build on the rich lessons of the Civil War veterans' experiences, to develop scholarship in the area of veterans studies, and to realize the dream of full social integration for soldiers returning home.

Excerpt

My enthusiasm was pretty well aroused Monday—it being “Memorial
Day”—and it was a beautiful sight to see the Grand A.R. observe the cer
emonies consequent on that day. I think on one occasion on that day, and
I don’t know but more than one, the thought came to me that perhaps
we as soldiers would be as much thought of if we were under the turf
as well—but of course live soldiers don’t deserve as much credit as
dead ones.

—Letter from James C. Bolles to Charles Maxim

The question of what the living owe to the dead is central to the healing process for any culture following war. Cemeteries, monuments, and rituals such as parades are all pieces of the attempt by a society to remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in its defense. From these commemorations, a public memory develops of the war, its causes, and its larger significance. This public memory becomes the story of the war that a society tells its future generations. What civilians owe to veterans is a much thornier question. Unlike dead soldiers, veterans endure as everyday reminders of the conflict in which they participated and often require considerable medical and financial aid to help them adjust to postwar life. Veterans also tend to complicate the portrait of war created by public memory. Their diverse experiences remind a society of the messiness of war at a time when most members of that society are searching for closure.

Each war has its unique characteristics, but they all seem to share this conundrum of how to address living veterans. New Men explores this problem in the context of the post–Civil War–era United States. in this book we see the tangled reintegration process of former soldiers from the North and South as they attempted to reenter civilian life. We also see the growing tension that develops . . .

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