All Brave Men Are True Comrades: Union Veterans and Confederate Memorials

All Brave Men Are True Comrades: Union Veterans and Confederate Memorials

Today James Marten, professor of history at Marquette University, shares his first Field Dispatch. The author or editor of fifteen books, Marten was the 2010 winner of MU’s Lawrence G. Haggerty Award for Excellence in Research. Among his recent publications are America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Georgia, 2014) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (UNC Press, 2011).


The events of the past summer were just the most recent reminder that even stone and brass memorials can be reshaped—at least metaphorically—to meet the political and cultural needs of the present. That was also the case in the fall of 1912, when a prominent Union veteran gave a memorable speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Confederate Memorial, Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

President William McKinley helped pave the way for this unlikely monument when he decided in 1898 that the federal government should take over the maintenance of the graves of 30,000 Confederates who had died in Union prisons or hospitals. Another major step came when the Confederate veterans in the cemetery were reinterred in a separate section. President Taft granted the United Daughters of the Confederacy permission to build the monument in 1906. The cornerstone was laid in 1912 and the monument was finally completed in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson made the main speech at the dedication held on Jefferson Davis’s birthday.[1]

A number of Union veterans attended that ceremony, although a couple of decades earlier some had protested the erection in 1890 of Richmond’s huge statue to Robert E. Lee. But Union veterans seemed more put out by the most overt symbol of reconciliation: the campaign by some Grand Army of the Republic leaders and state politicians to return Confederate battle flags to southern states.

One Union veteran who initially opposed the return of Confederate flags was James “Corporal” Tanner, who had lost the lower third of both of his legs at Second Manassas, and from the 1870s on, was one of the most visible advocates for veterans’ interests. He was also a popular public speaker and a peripatetic promoter of the GAR and the Republican Party. He often spoke warmly of reconciliation to northern and southern crowds alike, including the 1896 national encampment of the United Confederate Veterans. He was particularly moved by the plight of Confederates who had died in northern prison camps. As state commander of the New York GAR in the 1870s, he made sure that the graves of Confederates who had died in Union prisons were decorated on Memorial Day. He claimed that he offered a little salute whenever he passed the obelisk erected in the old City Cemetery in Chicago near the graves of Confederates who had perished in Chicago’s Camp Douglas.[2]

Despite Tanner’s sincere devotion to reconciliation, he got himself into a bit of trouble in 1906 when, while national commander of the GAR, he harshly criticized the Georgia UDC when they floated the idea of erecting a statue in honor of Capt. Henry Wirz, the executed commander of Andersonville. Tanner declared that, “When the accursed soul of Captain Wirz floated into the corridors of hell, the devil recognized . . . his only competitor.” The UDC and all of their supporters were accordingly insulted.[3]

James Tanner as commander of the National GAR. From Roll of the 40th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (Philadelphia: Town Printing Co., 1906).

But the estrangement between the Corporal and the South, though sharp, was brief, and no one was surprised when organizers invited Tanner to the laying of the Confederate Memorial’s cornerstone in 1912. It was a pleasant, late fall day, and the crowded program featured hymns, prayers, a cornet solo, and a listing all of the items that were going into the cornerstone’s time capsule. To ensure that everyone in attendance knew that honoring Confederates did not clash with loyalty to the United States, they sang not only “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but also “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The U.S. Fifteenth Cavalry’s band provided the music, and William Jennings Bryan delivered the main speech.

Tanner came to Arlington that day believing he would play a very small role. But on impulse, the master of ceremonies, Col. Hilary A Herbert (he had commanded the 8th Alabama during the war and afterwards was a long-time congressmen and Secretary of the Navy) asked Tanner to offer a few words at the end of the program. Tanner began by gently chiding “my friend, Herbert,” for not giving him more time to prepare, but he had given thousands of speeches during his long career and he rose to the occasion. An inveterate name-dropper, Tanner mentioned the day in 1900 when President William McKinley had asked his opinion about the bill then before Congress authorizing the permanent internment of Confederates in Arlington. “I answered him that he and I served and fought and that we did not make war upon dead men nor bear animosity toward them.” If he were president, he told McKinley, he would sign the bill. The President, claimed Tanner, grasped his hand and said, “I am glad to hear you talk like that, Tanner. I shall sign it as soon as it reaches my desk.” [4]

Tanner admitted he had nothing new to say on this occasion, but he did recall the time years before when he had come out in support of the Camp Douglas monument. When a fellow Union veteran demanded that he oppose the idea, Tanner had rebuked him, writing that he could not oppose a monument to men who “battle[d] for a cause.” Tanner then recalled the most treasured volume in his library, a small book written by John W. Daniel, the disabled Confederate veteran, U. S. Congressmen, and Lost Cause apologist from Virginia. Tanner had a special feeling for the book, not only because he and the author shared a disability, but also because Daniels had inscribed Tanner’s copy with a touching sentiment: “All brave men are true comrades.” The two old soldiers, Tanner said, were equally committed to “the speedy restoration of unity, good feeling, and perfect peace between the hitherto discordant sections of our country.”[5]

But the Corporal sought to do more than look backward. His brief remarks at Arlington, delivered over fifty years after the Civil War, concluded with a call to the young men in the audience: “We of both sides, as we were aligned of old, want you young men—the men of today—to bear in mind that we old fellows met these issues in the long ago and we fought them out; we settled them for all time. . . . We have brought to you a great united nation, a republic founded on principles that shall carry it along ‘til the end of time.”[6] The Confederate Memorial did not represent a lost cause to Tanner, although it probably did to many in his audience. Rather, he used this ultimate expression of Confederate pride and tragedy to illustrate his view of the war’s meaning.

Reconciliation formed much of Tanner’s identity. He drew self-esteem and worth from his role as one of the nation’s leading proponents of the movement, but there was more to his attitude than that. He and other reconciliationists used Confederate Memorials to posit a very specific worldview that transcended the simple desire to let bygones be bygones. Tanner made the point on that fall day in 1912, and on a number of other occasions, that the Civil War had not simply settled ancient conflicts but had unleashed American potential and power. The nation was a better place because of the war. Tanner accepted former Confederates’ efforts to honor their heroes, but added a much more expansive, forward-looking meaning to the Confederates’ nostalgic, backward-looking monuments. Getting Americans in both sections to understand this simple fact would make Tanner’s sacrifices relevant not only to America’s past, but also to its future.

James Tanner died in 1927 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The old amphitheater near his grave, built in the 1870s, was renamed in his honor in 2014. Both are a fifteen-minute walk away from the Confederate Memorial.

 

[1] Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 260-264. Janney’s book is the most useful account of the creation and response to this and many other symbols of the Lost Cause.

[2] James Marten, America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 76-79; Confederate Veteran, April 1895.

[3] J. R. Gibbons, “The Monument to Captain Henry Wirz,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 36 (Richmond: Southern Historical Society, 1908), 226.

[4] Hilary A. Herbert, History of the Arlington Confederate Monument (United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1914), 38.

[5] Herbert, 38.

[6] Herbert, 39.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

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