Won, but Not One: The Construction of Union Veteranhood, 1861-1917

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Virginia Tech

Fifteen years following the end of the American Civil War, the identity of the Union veteran was in crisis. In 1879 Congress passed the Arrears Act, an immediately expensive pension bill that muddied the public's perception of veterans. Once considered heroes, the former soldiers of the Civil War became drains on the federal budget. At the same time, the membership of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans' organization, was increasing exponentially, making visible veterans commonplace. No longer was the Union veteran rare and honorable; by the 1880s the veteran was common and expensive. In response to the degradation of veteranhood, some former soldiers felt the blanket term 'veteran' needed to be reconsidered. These men went about creating the identity of "true"veteranhood in an attempt to reclaim the level of status attached to veterans immediately following the Civil War. Not all veterans were accepting of this "true" veteranhood, and actively fought back, forwarding instead a notion of inclusive veteranhood in which all former soldiers were represented. Neither side proved convincing, and the debate only ended in the early twentieth century as Union veterans died off and new veterans took their place. Through this debate, though, we can see the importance and complexity attached to identities, and the ways in which people actively reconsider themselves to cling to these identities in response to changes in their surroundings.

Civil War, Union, Veterans, The Grand Army of the Republic, The National Tribune, The Arrears Act, Status