Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

America's Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

America's Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace

Article excerpt

America's Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace. By James Marten. (Ath- ens: University of Georgia Press, 2014. Pp. x, 199, notes, index. Paper, $24.95).

If fame is fleeting, James Tanner is a prime example. In his new work, James Marten re-introduces this largely unknown figure who was one of the best-known Americans in the Gilded Age. Celebrated in his lifetime as a public speaker, civil servant, political power broker, and advocate for Union Civil War veterans, Tan- ner and his career, Marten argues, symbolize this era and seek to explain why his fame was so transitory. The result is a highly readable and insightful look not only into the man but also the era.

Tanner's first brush with notoriety came when he was called upon to take notes in the room where Lincoln had been taken after being shot, for he had been trained in stenography after losing both legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run. His true celebrity came after the war when he travelled the nation speaking on behalf of Union veterans. Although the public perception is that he was both a heroic and tragic figure of the Civil War, Marten challenges that view as a myth that Tanner himself nurtured. Marten argues that it is unlikely that Tanner ever fired his weapon in combat. The veteran's horrendous injury occurred when a Confederate shell exploded overhead and a fragment fell onto his legs, damaging them so severely that amputation was required.

Marten states that the rest of Tanner's career was based upon misdirecting the public, including veterans themselves, regarding his role in the war. Although Tanner never seems to have lied about his service, he was skillful at re-directing the conversation to other veterans who, in Tanner's words, sacrificed much more than he did. His seeming modesty undoubtedly gave audiences the impression that his service was more distinguished than it had been. Fueling this crafted image, Tanner insisted on being called by his former rank of corporal, creating a bond with the vast majority of veterans.

His oratorical skills put him in high demand on the lecture circuit, where he skillfully established a connection with veterans who came to view him as a beloved and trusted figure. His connection with Union veterans helped make Tanner a powerful figure in the Republican Party, and candidates sought his en- dorsements because he could deliver the votes of veterans. …

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