The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic

  • Barbara A. Gannon
  • University of North Carolina Press
  • 288 pp.
  • June 13, 2011

Interracial attitudes in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Reviewed by Peter Cozzens

In 1866, Union veterans created the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) for the purpose of preserving “fraternal feelings [and] the making of these ties advantageous to those in need of assistance.” Within months, GAR posts had sprung up across the North.

Although the organization claimed to be nonpartisan, it in fact became a political arm of the Republican Party and the fight for Reconstruction. It also had a belligerent undertone. At the height of the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson in 1868, John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the GAR and a Radical Republican congressman from Illinois, secretly ordered GAR post commanders to prepare to arm their members in the event it became necessary to forcibly remove Johnson from office.

GAR members generally identified themselves with the Republicans because it was the party of Lincoln and because the South hijacked the Democratic Party in the years immediately following the Civil War. As the Republican Party turned away from Reconstruction in the 1870s, membership in the GAR fell sharply. In the 1880s a reinvigorated GAR became deeply involved in securing pensions for Union veterans, throwing its support behind the National Tribune, a widely read veterans’ publication that had as its primary purpose “the speedy adjustment of all pension claims.” Although the GAR accepted African-American veterans as members, it did little to advocate pension and disability benefits for them.

The Won Cause largely ignores the partisan and practical objectives that animated the GAR during much of its existence. Instead, it focuses on how the organization provided a setting in which, author Barbara Gannon argues, white veterans accepted their African-American counterparts as worthy comrades and near political and social equals. The Won Cause seeks to demonstrate that the GAR created a transcendent bond of comradeship that forged a “Civil War memory” of a “ ‘Won Cause’ in opposition to the ‘Lost Cause,’ ” which, Gannon asserts, “won the battle for Civil War Memory” for much of the 20th century.

The Won Cause overstates the depth of interracial comradeship. The absence of African-American attendees at the first national GAR convention in 1866 provides a conspicuous example of the limits of interracial fraternity. Equally telling is the single reference to black veterans that the GAR commander-in-chief, Robert B. Bearth, made in his 1888 History of the Grand Army of the Republic. Bearth said that the GAR represented both “freeman and Christian civilians.” That statement itself demonstrates that bigotry was alive and well in the GAR.

Gannon, an assistant professor of military history at the University of Central Florida, argues that “understanding the place of black veterans in the interracial GAR requires a brief review of the black military experience in the Civil War.” Her review is indeed brief — just three pages. A much fuller discussion of the wartime service of black units is critical to understanding racial dynamics within the GAR.

Gannon asserts that her study benefits from the 21st-century “science of personal memory” — how individuals literally remember what happened in their own lives. “Understanding the personal memory of the Civil War generation,” she says, “has been a missing element in the discussion of the Civil War.”

Instead of supplying this missing element, however, Gannon makes sweeping assertions on the basis of a handful of primary sources. She relies on only six published memoirs, all of which were written well after the war; a smattering of brief recollections drawn from The National Tribune; and a handful of veterans’ talks at GAR posts — an inadequate basis to sustain her claims. Additional research is required to illustrate the critical reason white veterans accepted blacks in the GAR; years of Civil War research by this reviewer has shown that reason to be mutual respect born of wartime experiences in which white Union soldiers shared with their black comrades both glory and sacrifice on the battlefield.

Excerpts from the GAR talks cited in the book suggest the importance of the wartime experience in veterans’ lives but do not address the racial part of the equation. For instance, Gannon rightly describes the attack on the Crater at Petersburg as having a “distinct place in veterans’ memories.” In the confusion of the Battle of the Crater white and black units intermingled and fought as one. Gannon’s quotations from veterans don’t adequately cover this crucial dimension of the struggle. Telling readers that a white Pennsylvania soldier thought the battle important because “our army blew up a Rebel fort” or that a German-born member of the Michigan regiment recalled receiving a bullet wound that never healed reveals only that the battle itself lived on in veteran’s memories. But no excerpts reveal white soldiers’ reflections on their black comrades.

Having consulted so few personal accounts, it is perhaps not surprising that Gannon’s conclusions about soldiers’ experiences are either obvious or bizarre. “A soldier sleeping outside was probably even more miserable when he was hungry,” she writes. Other comments note that “most soldiers were never captured; however, all shared the routine misery of military life” and that “amputation may have been preferable to capture.”

The paucity of primary sources consulted and the unenlightening use of them, the unsubstantiated assumptions about the purpose of the GAR and a lack of engagement with the combat experiences that formed the basis of Civil War memory all weaken Gannon’s argument in The Won Cause that the biracialism of Union veterans in the GAR nurtured a shared memory of the war. And if such a shared memory ever existed, it was quickly overshadowed by the mythology of the Lost Cause.

Peter Cozzens is a U.S. Foreign Service officer and the author of 16 books on the Civil War and the Indian Wars of the American West. All his books have been selections of the Book of the Month Club, History Book Club and/or the Military Book Club.

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