Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

A Running Fight against Their Fellow Men: Civil War Veterans in Gilded Age Literature

Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

A Running Fight against Their Fellow Men: Civil War Veterans in Gilded Age Literature

Article excerpt

The most famous fictional soldier of the Civil War is arguably Henry Fleming, whose brush with cowardice helped inspire an iconic portrayal of courage under fire. Far less well-known is Stephen Crane's sketch of Henry's life after the war, the short story "The Veteran." Published in 1896, a year after The Red Badge of Courage, the tale projects Fleming into a vaguely contented late middle age. His younger neighbors listen to Henry's war stories, including the incident in which Henry succumbs to and then masters his panic in the face of mortal danger. The townsmen laugh a bit, but Henry's little grandson, Jim--perhaps named after Henry's old comrade Jim Conklin--is troubled that his hero could ever have run from danger.

Later that night, a barn fire breaks out. The other men, untested by life or death crises, rush about ineffectually. Henry quietly takes charge and makes a half dozen trips into the inferno to save the valuable livestock trapped inside. His hip is smashed and hair is burned off, but the cattle and horses are rescued. "The Veteran" showed that once a man has come to grips with his mortality and learned to manage his fear, the strength he drew from the terror and accomplishment would last the rest of his life. (1)

But there is an undercurrent flowing beneath the main plot, a tone that conveys a strange, if subtle, sense of unease. Henry is admired by his neighbors but seems almost to be a stranger to them, someone from the distant past. Henry's clarity of purpose and simple valor separate him absolutely from his duller neighbors. One senses that the long decades between the war and the fire had softened the civilians' understanding of the veterans' sacrifices and contributions and that Henry Fleming feels a nebulous sense of dissatisfaction at the lack of obvious respect.

Crane's portrayal of a veteran out of sync with the rest of society is a gentler version of other fictional accounts of former soldiers who did not fit into peacetime society. And those stories and novels reflected vigorous Gilded Age debates--especially in the North--over the nature of volunteerism, the definition of "worthy" veterans, and the role of old soldiers in the nation's politics. Not all "old soldiers" were honored equally, as some were seen as less worthy of admiration than others and the notion that they should continue to be rewarded through pensions for service they had offered voluntarily encountered sometimes violent opposition.

The surprising ambivalence with which their countrymen viewed veterans seeped into American fiction between the end of the Civil War and the early twentieth century. This is not surprising, given that so many Americans were veterans of the Civil War. Military service was the most common denominator of middle-aged northern and southern men during the Gilded Age. Forty-one percent of all northern white men born between 1822 and 1845 and 81 percent of those born in 1843 served in the Union army. As many as three-fourths of all white men of military age living in the Confederate states served in the Confederate army. (2)

In some cases, the veteran status of main characters is simply a plot device; the stories are not about the men as veterans. Although they might retain some element of military discipline and patriotism, they are not seen as struggling to come to grips with the aftermaths of military service. That they are veterans is important only in that it provides a character trait that comes with easy-to-identify qualities and roots them in a certain time and place. For instance, a little-known 1884 novel by a former officer in a black regiment depicted southern Klansman as depraved murderers, although it distinguishes between the honorable Confederates who had laid down their arms peacefully and the cowards, deserters, and "wannabe" Rebels who lashed out through sadistic terrorism. A generation later, the heroes imagined in Thomas Dixon's Klan are also, for the most part, Confederate veterans, but they reveal that status through loyalty, discipline, and a devotion to law and order (as they saw it, at least). …

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