This was Professor James I. Robertson Jr.’s presentation at the 2015 Bridgewater College Civil War Institute held on March 21, 2015 at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.
He began by pointing out that most “buffs” end their study at the end of the war. That’s not the end of the story, though. An overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers survived the war, and their diverse postwar careers provide a fascinating contrast. This talk came out of Professor Robertson’s next book, After the Civil War, to be published by the National Geographic Society. In that book, Professor Robertson considers 75 Civil War notables and tells us what happened to them after the war. This talk is a sampling of what is in that book.
For three decades, beginning in 1841, the most popular name in American newspapers was Horace Greeley.
His New York Tribune had the largest circulation in the US, even though Greeley himself seemed to be a burlesque character. His pink, childlike face fringed with silky hair, plus a whiny voice and an always-present white duster, invited caricature. Although highly influential, Greeley was also wildly idealistic and terribly eccentric. He opposed aristocracy of all shades. He spoke out against slavery, against tobacco, liquor, and capital punishment. He favored peace movements, women’s suffrage, high tariffs, vegetarianism, and spiritualism. By the time of the Civil War the Tribune was not so much a newspaper as it was a guidebook of faith–a sort of secondary Book of Common Prayer. Greeley had earlier risen to fame on the battle cry of “Go West, young man,” promoting western settlement. But in 1861 his great cry became “On to Richmond!” Greeley said it so often the Union advance to Manassas in July of ’61 came to seem like a move to satisfy the editor as much as anything. But throughout the war, his editorials battled the Union administration. The advent of peace did not slow Greeley’s momentum. He bravely advocated amnesty, reconciliation, and self-government in the South. He characterized carpetbaggers as individuals intent “on stealing and plundering, many of them with arms around Negroes and their hands in their rear pockets seeing if they cannot pick a paltry dollar out of the poor slave.” In 1867, Horace Greeley, the North’s foremost editor, was one of the leading bail bonders to get Jefferson Davis out of prison. Naturally, Radical Republicans detested Greeley. However, Democrats and Liberal Republicans saw the editor as a moderate who just might end the “age of hate” then engulfing the country as what we know as Reconstruction. So in 1872 this combine of Democrats and Liberal Republicans nominated the 61-year-old Horace Greeley for the Presidency of the United States–he’s a nut! In 1868 the New York Tribune had nominated Robert E. Lee as President of the United States, and Greeley proclaimed he was the most able man, the most intelligent person in the country. What makes that so odd is that if Lee had been elected in 1868 he couldn’t serve. His citizenship had been taken away. That didn’t bother Greeley, he thought he ought to be President. So in that 1872 campaign the mud-slinging began, and it was a rough and one-sided campaign. President Grant, as usual, wanted to say little, and he did. But Republicans went after Greeley with a political vilification quite comparable to the sewer strategy normally employed by today’s politicians. Editorial illustrator Thomas Nast, the father of Santa Claus, drew some of his most vicious cartoons with Greeley portrayed as the village idiot. Greeley’s wife died of a broken heart from all the abuse heaped on her husband. She died three days before the election. The broken-hearted candidate then told a friend on election night, “I have been so bitterly assailed that I hardly know whether I’m running for the Presidency or the penitentiary.” Greeley suffered a crushing defeat at the polls. He was then institutionalized for what was diagnosed as “an exhausted brain.” He died two weeks after the election. A large number of government leaders, including President Grant, attended the funeral in Brooklyn, NY. Were they sympathetic at his passing or just happy to see him go? We’ll never know.
One name stands above all others in Civil War poetry, and that figure is hailed as the father of free, unrhymed verse. And yet Walt Whitman’s journeys to and from fame were often tortuous.
Born in 1819, he was the second of nine children. He was largely self-taught, but he read voraciously. He struggled through early careers as a printer, a journalist, and a teacher. His first novel, Franklin Evans, published in 1842, was a temperance manual, and then Whitman turned to poetry. The first edition of the notorious or famous Leaves of Grass, his most famous work, appeared in 1855, and then Whitman would continue for the next twenty years adding and revising the work. It was twenty-seven years he worked on it. The poem portrays life as it was, socially, sexually, and otherwise. Admirers called it refreshingly human. His critics labeled it obscene for its overt sexuality. A steady stream of poems preceded Whitman’s 1861 call to arms, a little-known poem entitled “Beat, Beat the Drums.” Late in December of 1862, Whitman went from New York to Washington in search of his brother George, a Union officer reported wounded and missing after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman eventually found his sibling only slightly injured. However, during the long search the poet was deeply moved by the sight of so many wounded soldiers. He watched wagon loads of badly injured men arrive at the hospitals in Washington, already crowded beyond capacity. Whitman obtained a job at the Army paymaster’s office and volunteered as a nurse in the military hospitals. He wrote his mother, “It is the most pitiful sight I think when first the men are brought in. I have to hustle around to keep from crying at their pitiful condition.” “The Great Army of the Sick” appeared in an 1863 New York newspaper and it became the basis for Whitman’s best-known Civil War work, Memoranda During the War, published in 1875. Three years of nurturing thousands of Union soldiers convinced Whitman that “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background” of the suffering he had beheld. Then he made that great quotation Professor Robertson has “spent a lifetime to overcome:” “The real war will never get into the books.” Professor Robertson has tried his best to put it into the books. Postwar literature did not live up to its prewar reputation. Many future authors were fatalities in the struggle, and the sharp turn toward national industrialization diluted real artistic pursuits. Whitman managed to survive the downgrade, and he wrote some of his best poems after the shooting stopped. But it was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that sent him to the top of popularity. The death of Lincoln inspired Whitman to write two poems, and they’ve become classics in American literature. One is, “O Captain! My Captain!” and the other, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman’s postwar personal life generated quite a bit of controversy. His homosexuality became widely known in an age where the closet doors all stayed tightly shut. A Deist at heart, he accepted all churches and believed in none. A paralytic stroke in 1873 did not slow his production. He moved to Camden, New Jersey and bought a simple, two-story clapboard house. A pause in his poetry came when he designed and oversaw construction of his own mausoleum. His final volume of poetry, Goodbye, My Fancy!, appeared the year he died. He became very ill and spent his last weeks in a shabby, bug-ridden room, paper peeling from the walls, wasted, atrophied, abscessed, he was, one visitor noted, “a carnival ground of decay.” Aware of his condition, Whitman gave his permission for an autopsy to be made when he died to find out exactly which disease he had did him in. He died in March, 1892. The autopsy was only partially successful. A laboratory technician accidentally dropped the brain on the floor. He’s known today as the “Bard of Democracy,” but Walt Whitman always believed, “The genius of the United States exists most in its common people,” and he was perhaps the greatest spokesman America’s common people ever had.
Never until the 20th Century was so large an amount of money dispersed by the orders of one man as happened in the Civil War. At the end of the war this individual, though he had spent billions, could account for every single dollar he had expended. That was the positive side of the Union Quartermaster General, Montgomery C. Meigs.
On the other hand, Meigs could exhibit, and did exhibit, a humorless, hateful nature as well. A high graduate in the West Point Class of 1836, Meigs first made his reputation with a dear friend who was his classmate, named Robert E. Lee. The two of them were sent to St. Louis, from which the Mississippi River was moving away, and St. Louis was going to end up in the prairie unless they did something. It was Lee and Meigs who redirected the river so it would continue flowing by St. Louis. Today, historians in St. Louis know it was that duo of Lee and Meigs who saved their city from oblivion. Meigs then came to Washington. He constructed the Potomac Aqueduct. He also oversaw major additions made to the US Capitol Building. In the 1850s Meigs and then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis became close friends as they developed, together, the city’s water works and other capital projects. Meigs served as the Quartermaster General of the Union Army for the entire war. An imposing figure, six feet, one inches tall and weighing well over two hundred pounds, he was a straight-laced administrator with all the goods and bads of micromanaging. He expanded his department from sixty to three hundred members. He labored tirelessly to keep Union soldiers well equipped, well fed, well armed. Meigs’ 1862 policies brought an equalization in uniform color, and this was at a time he was moving an army of 120,00 men, the greatest military force the Western World had ever seen, from Washington to the Virginia Peninsula, and it was Meigs who commandeered 489 vessels and put together a gigantic armada to move down from Washington, and the current south from Washington would be the fastest that army moved under McClellan. But Meigs had no sense of humor. As the Union units gathered in Washington in 1861, he looked on with horror at what he saw. If you enlisted in the army in 1860 you wore the uniform. Not a uniform, but the uniform. Whether you were 5’2″ or 6’4″, whether you weighed a hundred pounds or three hundred pounds, you were given the same uniform. It didn’t fit anybody. Meigs looked out at these thousands of recruits and called them an international convention of clowns. He immediately contacted all the uniform makers in America, and Meigs said, “This has got to stop. From this point on, you’re going to make four uniforms, and you’re going to call them Small, Medium, Large, and Extra Large.” Montgomery Meigs is the father of presized clothing. In all, Meigs would personally disperse a billion-and-a-half dollars, the largest expenditure in military history up to that time, and forty times the US Army’s prewar budget. His handwriting was absolutely illegible. During the war, General William Sherman stated, “The handwriting on this report is that of General Meigs and I will have to approve of it even though I can’t read a word it says.” Regrettably for history and for Meigs, the Quartermaster General was violently anti-Confederate. At the formation of the Confederate States he declared its leadership should be formally put out-of-the-way if possible by a sentence of death.” When Lincoln asked what to do with Lee’s estate at Arlington, Meigs replied that the Romans sowed the fields of their enemies with salt. “Let us make it a field of honor.” And the fields of their enemy was made into a cemetery–a cemetery for the common soldiers. Meigs’ son was killed in battle in 1864, and he was buried in Grave Number One, Section Number One, of Arlington National Cemetery. In 1867 he was still urging confederate leaders be hanged for treason. He remained Quartermaster General until his 1882 retirement. He built the National Pension Building in Washington, of blood-red brick, apparently a truly horrible looking building. He took General-in-Chief Philip Sheridan on a tour of it and at the end he asked Sheridan what he thought of it. Sheridan replied there was only one thing wrong with it–it was fireproof. Failing health marked his final years and he died in January of 1893. He was buried in a grave specially selected right at the front steps of Arlington Mansion. He apparently had an incredible fear of water, because his will specified that before he was placed in the coffin his head would be encased in cement.
Two factors in mid-Nineteenth Century America changed the sideline profession of caring for the dead and turned it into a business of its own, the funeral business. Traditionally, up to the 1850s hardware store owners sold caskets in which the dead were quickly buried. As soon as people died, they were put in the box and put into the ground. Funeral services were very quick. Only a handful of people made a living as undertakers. Then came the Civil War, the largest conflict the world had seen to that point. With unprecedented numbers fighting, unprecedented numbers died. Corpses became commonplace and burial a widespread chore. That’s when an incredible individual stepped to the forefront. He would gain the title of the Father of Embalming. He was Thomas H. Holmes.
Holmes was the first person to popularize the idea of preserving the dead on a mass scale through the arterial injection of fluid. He was the first to get rich from undertaking. Born in New York City in 1817, the particulars of his life are rather sketchy. He entered Columbia University Medical School and expelled about a month later for stealing a cadaver and leaving it on his professor’s death. For a time he worked in a coroner’s office. He became fascinated with dead bodies. His life took an upswing when he married the sister of William J. Burnell, who was perhaps the largest mortician in the North and had his funeral home in New Jersey. Holmes now entered the funeral business. In 1860 he finally perfected an embalming fluid composed of zinc chloride with an arsenic base. Arsenic will kill you in small doses. In large doses it will petrify you. He would inject bodies with arsenic and they would become like stone. By the time the Civil War began, Holmes had gotten to the point where he could establish his own funeral parlor, which he did in downtown Washington. He managed by quick action to get the remains of the war’s first hero, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth who was killed in Alexandria, Virginia. Holmes embalmed Ellsworth’s remains for free, and then he put them on display in the front window of his funeral parlor. So enthusiastic was the public response that Holmes’ fame and fortune were assured thereafter. In the course of the war his clients would include General John Buford and General John Sedgwick, both of whom got front window viewings. Holmes charged a flat $100 fee for embalming, equivalent to about $1,000 today. By his calculation he embalmed 4,028 Union soldiers in the course of the war. He was by no means alone in his business. Dozens of embalmers descended on the Union armies, and each posed as a doctor with great experience at the art. In the first year of the war the Adams Express Company handled no fewer than 2,000 Union corpses. Northern families with contacts lined up to have a loved one recovered from a hospital or battlefield, preserved, and then sent home. Soon, Holmes and the other Washington embalmers had gotten in trouble with the law. Those firms, like the hotels, became overcrowded with “clients.” Nearby restaurant owners complained the stench of death and chemicals, especially in the face of heat, humidity, and natural decomposition of the body was bad for the restaurant business. Holmes was briefly arrested for operating a public nuisance. Yet he was unable and surely unwilling to stop the steady flow of customers and he somehow continued to work. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln brought new public awareness of the great art of Thomas H. Holmes. Holmes did not get Lincoln’s remains. The job went to the firm of Brown and Alexander in Washington. This revolutionary means of preserving would be all positive would it not be for its creator, Thomas Holmes. At war’s end he underwent, to put it mildly, an eccentric change of character. He returned to Brooklyn a wealthy man but totally obsessed with cadavers. Specimens of his work soon filled his home–bodies in the closet, standing in the hallways, in the front yard, etc. When guests arrived for a meal they might encounter an arm or a head. He also converted a part of his home into a pharmacy, including a root beer soda shop. On his death-bed in 1900, Thomas Holmes made one last request: under no circumstances was his body to be embalmed. In 1911, the Federal government outlawed the use of arsenic in embalming. The base is now formaldehyde.
Some people may never have heard of Jonathan Letterman, but military medicine will never forget him.
One of his colleagues called him the most brilliant, energetic medical officer of the 19th Century. That he alone saved thousands of soldiers’ lives is absolutely incontestable. Born in Pennsylvania the son of a physician, Letterman graduated from the prestigious Jefferson Medical College and spent 12 years as an army surgeon. In July of 1862, Letterman was thrust into the heart of the Civil War by being appointed Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac. He was then 37, a small, quiet man who always bore the look of a nerdy student. Now he was responsible in 1862 for the health and the survival of 110,000 exhausted, emaciated, dispirited soldiers. At the time he took over the Medical Directorship of the Army of the Potomac, four out of every ten men were found sick. Letterman was filled with reform ideas. Years of frontier duty had taught him to use his ingenuity, to be less conventional, and to care more about what actually worked than what the rule books said was supposed to work. And so what he had deduced in rapid fashion was a revolutionary system of medical care where essentially none had previously existed. Common sense changes were sweeping. Up to that time, for example, medical needs were only items on a quartermaster’s long list of things to do. Letterman made the Medical Department a separate entity totally divorced from the quartermaster and any other agency. A clear chain of command went into effect with first aid stations on the battlefield, field hospitals nearby, and first aid stations behind the lines. Letterman created history’s first ambulance wagon, a wagon designed to carry nine patients, and these wagons were operated by the Medical Department, and they were driven not by teamsters but by men who had some medical training so they knew what to do with the wounded and where to go. In short, Jonathan Letterman is the father of EMT, on which we all depend today. He fathered the concept. He changed the course of medicine in many other ways. This seemingly tireless physician obtained, organized and distributed medical supplies. He was the first surgeon to prioritize treatment based on the seriousness of the injuries and the likelihood of survival and he took patients in that order, not 1, 2, 3, 4 on somebody’s list of things to do. At the Battle of Gettysburg he handled 20,000 wounded soldiers with an efficiency that bordered on the miraculous. A year earlier at Shiloh, three days later 3/4 of the wounded were still on the field, most of them having died of shock and blood loss. At the Battle of Gettysburg, by July 5, two days after the battle, there wasn’t a Union body on the field. Letterman’s organized system had gotten the wounded, buried the dead, and the wounded were being placed on empty trains back to Washington, trains that had been full of ammunition and supplies when they came up. The man was just absolutely fantastic. His program became part of every army’s organization for decades and decades to come. Naturally, Letterman’s changes brought controversy with stand-pat authorities. He was too dedicated to these reforms to waste time justifying them or explaining why he was making these changes. That, plus his desire to be with the wife he had married in 1862 led to his December 1864 resignation from the Army, and he moved to California and became coroner of San Francisco. His wife suddenly died, leaving him with two small children, and it broke his heart. He was devastated, especially when conditions forced him to send his two daughters to live with distant relatives back in the East while he had to remain in California. His spirits and his health fell steadily. In March 1872, Jonathan Letterman died of what was called chronic intestinal disease. He was 49. In 1906 his remains and those of his wife were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery. For some 85 years, Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, its major medical center, was named for him. A more enduring tribute came from General Paul Hawley, Chief Surgeon of the European Theater of Operations in World War II. In 1945, near the end of World War II, Hawley confessed, “There was not a day during this war that I did not thank God for Jonathan Letterman.”
We know a lot about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, we know probably way too much about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but there are two assassinations of presidents you probably don’t know much about. Six Union officers became President of the United States. They ranged in temperament from the hot-headed Andrew Johnson who got himself impeached to the quiet and honest Rutherford B. Hayes whose first presidential action was to end Reconstruction. Among these half-dozen chief executives, two were assassinated. Attention given to Kennedy and Lincoln awakens interest in the second and third assassinations.
James A. Garfield was another of those rags-to-riches stories. He had followed a path much like Lincoln’s. Raised as an orphan in abject poverty. he became in time headmaster of what is now Hiram College in Ohio. He helped organize the 42nd Ohio and became its colonel. Two years later he was a brigadier general and chief of staff to General William Rosecrans. Garfield left the army in 1863 to run for Congress. Tall, handsome, with a sharp mind and driving ambition, he gained the 1880 Republican nomination for President as a compromise candidate of the two factions of his party He won election and would serve four months in office. Charles Guiteau had openly supported Garfield for office in the 1880 election. Guiteau was a failure as a husband, a newspaperman,a lawyer, a politician, and he had a history of mental illness. Guiteau thought that for his aid in helping get Garfield elected President, and his aid was practically nonexistent, he deserved to be named Ambassador to France, his native country. Garfield never gave him a second thought. On July 2, 1881 as Garfield walked through Union Station in Washington to board a train to attend commencement services at his alma mater, Williams College, Guiteau shot the President from behind. For days, Garfield hung on to life. Physicians were unable to find the bullet, lodged somewhere in his right side between two fractured ribs, probing almost daily with unsterilized fingers. Garfield suffered immeasurably. He died of sepsis, blood poisoning, seventy-nine days after being shot. The autopsy found the bullet lodged just below the pancreas. Defense attorneys at Guiteau’s trial sought to establish insanity, but the defendant didn’t help his cause at all. He once stated, “The doctors killed Garfield. I just shot him.” The jury stayed out just 35 minutes. Guiteau was hanged in the District of Columbia. He danced playfully on the gallows and read a poem he had written for the occasion. His last request for an orchestra to play at his death had been denied.
Twenty years later, assassination struck again.
William McKinley may have been the most beloved President during his lifetime the nation had thus far. Everybody loved Bill McKinley. He had been a major in Rutherford B. Hayes’ 23rd Ohio during the war. Long years of honorable service in Congress had followed. McKinley was amiable, genial, courteous, tactful. So great was his self-control that he seemed not to even perspire during the worst of Washington summertimes. And he was a devoted family man. At his 1897 inauguration, after he said, “So help me God,” he did what no President ever since ever tried to do. He bent over and kissed his mother. He constantly watched over his wife, Ida, who unfortunately suffered grand mal attacks of epilepsy. If they were having a state dinner and Ida began to have a seizure, he would quietly lean over, put her napkin over her face, and hold her around the shoulder and continue talking while she went through her spasms. A Polish Catholic immigrant named Leon Czolgosz was an anarchist who considered America to have an unjust society. It was the very wealthy against the helpless poor. The unemployed laborer concluded, “I thought it would be a good thing for the country to kill the President.” On September 6, 1901 McKinley was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Czolgosz shuffled through the line to meet the President. A handkerchief concealed the gun in his right hand. When McKinley politely extended his hand to greet the man, Czolgosz swept it aside and fired twice at point-blank range, shouting, “I done my duty! I done my duty!” Then he was subdued and beaten by the crowd. McKinely died eight days later of sepsis. Czolgosz refused to speak to his defense attorneys so there was very little they could say in his defense. This trial was also short. This time the jury deliberated an hour. Czolgosz was then taken from Washington to Auburn Prison, New York, because the nation was undergoing a new form of execution and the one that existed was at the prison. When he arrived, a mob greeted him at the train station, beating him up again before the officers could get him into the prison. His execution was set at 7AM. At 6:30 they had to awaken him from a deep sleep to go to the chamber. Forty-five days after shooting William McKinley, Czolgosz was put to death by the still novel form of electrocution. Before the body was buried on prison grounds, authorities poured sulphuric acid into the coffin to hasten decomposition, and the remains disintegrated within twelve hours.
No two men had more reason to hate one another than did Union General William T. Sherman and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston.
For a year, through Georgia and in the Carolinas, they left thousands of casualties in their wake as they sought to destroy one another. The first mending of bitterness came with Sherman’s lenient surrender terms in April, 1865–so lenient that the War Department rejected them and sent them back and had the two sit down and work out alternate peace arrangements. Sherman may have been a terror in war, but the man was so, so anxious for peace. It was one of the quirks about Sherman. Thereafter, following the Bennett House surrender in late April of ’65, the two men moved in opposite directions. Cump Sherman remained in the service, quarreled with Secretary of War Stanton, and won friends on both sides with his conciliatory treatment toward the South. He was one of the favorite Northern soldiers to lecture in the South. He drew great crowds of admiring people when lecturing in the South. This should not seem odd. Sherman’s great love was in the South. He had been in New Orleans for a decade before 1860. He was the superintendent of the Louisiana Military Institute, which is today LSU, the Louisiana State University. He loved the South and its people. Don’t think of him as kind of a kooky-bird. He was not. He was very prophetic. In 1860 he wrote in Louisiana, “History shows conclusively that a nation of agriculturalists can never wage a successful war against a nation of machinists. You in the South are doomed to fail.” He was right. There was another part of Sherman, too. He was very hyper. He could never keep still. His chief of staff, who was a close friend, once characterized Sherman by saying, “Sherman was a very complex man, a very intricate machine with every single bolt a little loose.” During 1869-1883 William T. Sherman was General-in-Chief of the United States Army. He wrote his Memoirs, controversial but good reading, and he traveled throughout the country and was always in demand as a speaker. Uncle Joe Johnston left military service in 1865. He spent awhile in the railroad business and then served a term in Congress. His memoirs were his largest salvo in a ten-year verbal war with Jefferson Davis. The Johnston memoirs are worthless. He just carried out his war saying that Jefferson Davis was an idiot, that Johnston was victimized by an overzealous commander-in-chief, et cetera. Meanwhile, Johnston had said on a public occasion of a former nemesis, “Grant was the best fighter, but Sherman was the genius of the Union Army.” This unique, strange friendship developed between two hardened soldiers. As they aged it continued on. Their respect for one another was real. In February, 1891 William Sherman died in New York. The 84-year-old Joe Johnston struggled to New York City, himself in bad health, to be an honorary pallbearer at the funeral. The day was cold and windy and was sleeting. Johnston stood bareheaded as the flag-draped coffin was borne from Sherman’s home to a waiting caisson. Sherman’s niece, who knew Johnston well, leaned forward and said, “Please, Uncle Joe, please put on your hat. You might get sick.” Johnston looked down at her with tears in his eyes and said, “My dear, if I were in his place and he was standing here in mine, he would not have worn his hat.” A month later, Joe Johnston was dead. He died of pneumonia first contracted when he stood bareheaded in a sleet storm to say goodbye to an old friend.
Not all military survivors of the Civil War developed such camaraderie in the postwar years, but tens of thousands of them did, and their absence of prolonged malice and common faith in a new Union went far to ensure we would have a future, not as states, not as a split nation, but as a united people living in brotherhood. We owe them a great deal because we can sit together and talk about our country.