Deconstructing the Reconciliation Narrative of the Civil War

In 1913, Union and Confederate veterans held a touching reunion at Gettysburg. Now in their 70s, the veterans flocked to the small Pennsylvania town by the thousands. It was here that they shared stories, recreated memories, and celebrated the reconciled Union. Worn Union men shook hands with grizzled old foes across the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. Old wounds were healed as all the veterans put the war behind them.

Or had they?

The reunion was being held in the spirit of Reconciliation, a continued attempt to bring unity to the country. Reconstruction had lasted until 1877, with strong Federal control over the former rebellious states. After a compromise between the Republicans and Democrats to elect Rutherford B. Hayes, Reconstruction ended. The Federal troops were withdrawn and life began again as “normal” in the southern states.

But what did Reconciliation actually mean?

To Union veterans, it meant that the South had reconciled itself to Union victory and that the former rebellious hotheads now bent their knee in subservience to the idea of Union.

But to former Confederates, Reconciliation meant something more. It meant that not only were they not facing charges for treason or insurrection, but that Reconstruction was being rolled back. It meant that the North was turning a blind eye to Jim Crow laws and the racial persecution of African Americans in the South. It meant that they would control their local and state governments, free of the occupying Federal soldiers. And it meant that they would be able to control the narrative that they would come to term “the late unpleasantness” or “the war of Northern aggression.”

So when it comes to the relationship between the former combatants, “Reconciliation” could mean many things. If former foes demonstrated that they were properly contrite and now embraced the Union, U.S. veterans would be kind and cordial. But if the “Lost Cause” were invoked, or other concepts from unreconstructed Confederates then the Union veterans were quick to speak up.

Writing in 1903, Union veteran John Stewart had this to say about the idea of placing a statue of Robert E. Lee on the Gettysburg battlefield: “But what is to be gained by putting this statue of Lee on Gettysburg battlefield? If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’”

David Gregg, who had commanded a U.S. cavalry division, wrote, “The author of the bill [to place a monument of Lee on the battlefield] claims that its enactment is necessary to complete the reconciliation of the people of the opposing sections in the War of the Rebellion. I had supposed this reconciliation practically accomplished, and rejoiced with him in the fact. If I was mistaken, and there is still slumbering discord, propositions like this will surely fan it into a flame, a result most strongly to be regretted.”

Perhaps few objected as forcefully as Major William H. Lambert who remarked, also in 1903, “Individually, I am decidedly opposed to the proposition. I do not think we are far enough away from the time of the great struggle to erect monuments in memory of the men who tried to overthrow the Government. I have no doubt the Old Soldiers will heartily oppose it. I think we can safely wait until Virginia erects a statue to Abraham Lincoln or to General George Thomas.”

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Nicknamed “Old Pap,” “The Rock of Chickamauga,” and “The Hammer of Nashville,” Thomas is perhaps one of the most underrated U.S. generals in the Civil War. (NARA Photo)

Why George H. Thomas? See, this northern general – awesomely nicknamed both “The Rock of Chickamauga” and “The Hammer of Nashville” – well, he was from Virginia. Unlike Lee, who not only refused command of the U.S. Army but decided instead to oppose it, Thomas remained loyal. Doing so caused his family to disown him and his fellow southerners to hate him. How much hate? This is what J.E.B. Stuart wrote to his wife about Thomas in 1861: “Old George H. Thomas is in command of the cavalry of the enemy. I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.” And perhaps it was because of his connection with the South that he was able to write one of the most prescient paragraphs of U.S. history in an 1868 report to Ulysses S. Grant.

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For context, Thomas was writing to Grant concerning the conditions then existing in the Department of the Cumberland – the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Namely, that the Ku Klux Klan was operating with impunity in regions which had a preponderance of Confederate veterans. Former Union soldiers living there – despite Lost Cause Mythology, these states provided thousands of soldiers to the Union – were being terrorized, being forced to move, or were killed outright. Similarly, freed African Americans were persecuted and living in conditions not much different from slavery.

All of this was being accomplished with the tacit compliance of former Confederates and their sympathizers for whom the war had not ended. And even after the Klan was virtually destroyed under Grant and his troops in the coming years, their struggle continued in the narrative of the Lost Cause, which attempted to shove the issue of slavery into the closet and replace it with the far more palatable and American issue of state’s rights.

So was there really Reconciliation? Or was it an attempt by white upper class members of society, North and South, to gloss over “the late unpleasantness?” One could say that it was a mix of both, since history is rarely all or nothing.

Take the case of former Confederate general James Longstreet, for example. One of Lee’s most trusted generals, Longstreet committed two unforgivable sins as judged by his southern peers after the war: he criticized Lee in his memoirs and became a pro-Union Republican – and a Catholic. In fact, in 1874, as the adjutant general of Louisiana, Longstreet fought a battle with a white mob that was threatening New Orleans. This former rebel general lead his police force and African-American militia against the white mob in an unsuccessful battle that eventually led to the deployment of Federal forces. For this, Longstreet was ostracized by most other ex-Confederates. So for some leaders, Reconciliation took on more meaningful forms than others.

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Relied on heavily by Lee during the war, Longstreet refused to become one of his adherents after the war and rejected the myth of the Lost Cause.

Others such as Major Innes Randolph, one of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s staff officers. After the war, he penned the poem “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” which later became a song, also known as “Unreconstructed Rebel.” The first two verses are fairly telling of the whole:

“Oh, I’m a good old Rebel,
Now that’s just what I
For this ‘fair land of Freedom’
I do not care a damn.
I’m glad I fit against it-
I only wish we’d won.
And I don’t want no pardon
For anything I’ve done.

I hates the Constitution,
This great Republic too;
I hates the Freedmen’s Bureau,
In uniforms of blue.
I hates the nasty eagle,
With all his brag and fuss;
But the lyin’, thievin’ Yankees
I hates’ em wuss and wuss.”

This became a fairly popular folk song in the postbellum South as it captured much of the feeling then in vogue. As time went on, it was seen as an almost quaint way for northerners to view southern life, such as when it was eventually published in Collier’s Weekly in 1914. 

So there you’ve got two alternate and competing views of Reconciliation. As the current argument rages about the Confederate legacy, it is clear that the debate is still not ended. However, some may say that we should not continue the debate since the Civil War settled it and the combatants themselves viewed it as settled.

As we can see from the quotes, however, the causes of the war were far from settled in the minds of those who participated in it. And Reconciliation never quite “took.”


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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

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