Ghost Writers of the Confederacy by Dr. James J. Broomall

Introduction: Guest Blog–Dr. James J. Broomall

It is with great pleasure that we present the work of a historian who is more than likely to become a permanent fixture on your literary radar (and who, at some future moment in his illustrious career, will undoubtedly wonder why in the world he ever agreed to put up with a band of rapscallions such as ours). With the sesquicentennial well under way, Jim’s guest blog is timely for a multitude of reasons: the star of Civil War memory has never blazed brighter; the general public, taken with the likes of Ancestry.com and a slew of would-be made-for-TV encounters with the past (can you believe History Channel used the weapons guy from Pawn Stars?!) has never clamored more emphatically for this type of cultural link between present and past; and, R.E.M. sang a more literal sort of swan song just a month or so ago. They are, it seems, automatic for the people no longer. Anyhow, add to his resume that Dr. Broomall, currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Florida is an old Gator at heart, and we’re ready to get this show on the road–bones, toothpicks, Michael Stipe, and all.

– MCH

Ghost Writers of the Confederacy

In the haunting song, “Swan Swan H,” R.E.M. invokes the material fragments of war and the personal stories of a fallen Confederacy to illuminate the struggles and trials of Reconstruction. Gruesome “bone chains and toothpicks” carved in wartime prison camps and the worthless currency of a collapsed economy set the backdrop for the war’s ultimate human cost. “Marching feet, Johnny Reb, what’s the price of heroes? Six in one, half dozen the other, Tell that to the captain’s mother.”[1] The southern gothic sound of macabre remembrance, captured so clearly in the twentieth century, recovers the human cost and raw emotion so often lost in the lingering fables of Reconstruction. As nineteenth-century Americans moved toward the cause of national reunion in the 1870s and beyond, vigorous public celebrations and a rich body of literature created a portrait of the Civil War, in which romance and sentimental remembrance triumphed over reality.[2] Northerners and Southerners buried the war’s varied meanings and lingering traumas for the causes of reconciliation, reunion, and white supremacy.[3]

In the immediate postwar period few soldiers readily wrote about the conflicted emotions gripping so many, publicly at least.[4] Military defeat, political collapse, and economic ruin emasculated white Southern men. The psychological strains produced by these forces rendered some incapable of action and unable to communicate. Yet, other white Southerners remained discontented and none more so than the war’s participants. This brief examination of Confederate veterans’ unpublished memoirs, letters, and diaries reconstructs thriving veins of private expression that under girded an evolving public discourse to demonstrate a disconnect. Public portraits that emphasized strides toward stability, shared social suffering, and individual heroism masked the aimlessness, confusion, and sadness that consumed men privately. The disassociation between public order and private disorder suggests a more complicated narrative of reconstruction and reunion. Many veterans turned inward, talking only to family or other former soldiers about their experiences to create a disjuncture in understanding Southern whites’ postwar lives. Sharp divisions between war and peace do not accurately reflect the personal ambiguities of this period or the experiences of its participants.

Published accounts written after the war, enveloped by the Lost Cause, drained Johnny Reb of his lifeblood to replace the man with an immortalized figure cast in stone. A few examples will illustrate the process. An April 1868 account from South Carolina’s Yorkville Enquirer included a brief, but typical, excerpt describing the Southern soldier. “He was a curious compound,” it was noted, “a bundle of virtue, frailty and old clothes.” Nine-tenths of his character “consisted of what may be called don’t care-a-damn-ativeness. This was his marked individuality, and five years of discipline, hardship and danger did not tame the unruly spirit in the least. In fact, the longer the war continued the worse it grew.”[5] Along those lines is Carlton McCarthy’s description. A veteran of the Richmond Howitzers, McCarthy surmised in his account of soldier life that the Southerner’s courage “must never fail. He must be manly and independent.”[6] A defeated Sam Watkins mournfully wrote toward the end of his recollection, “Our country is gone, our cause is lost.”[7] Having fought and lost the great contest of his generation, Watkins could only return to but never recover “the flush and vigor of . . . manhood.”[8] Confederate soldiers, by their own hands and that of others, became living monuments—one-dimensional heroes to be fondly remembered and employed during a particularly bleak period in white southern history.[9] The myth of Johnny Reb promoted a host of causes lost and remembered but in doing so buried the personal tumult and lingering terror experienced by many veterans.[10]

As Southerners made sense of the war’s meaning, public rituals served as important vehicles of expression. Yet, these carefully articulated performances formed only one component of a wider, more intimate discussion of the war.[11] Some chose to never recall the war again, whereas others spoke only with other veterans. Men’s reticence was grounded in the fear of disappointing families and the pain of recalling the past. North Carolinian Henry Theodore Bahnson, for instance, recorded his informal “Recollections of the War” late in life. Beginning his account he noted: “You have often begged me [talking to his family] to tell you about the war, and doubtless you have wondered why I nearly always refused. The truth is, I have tried for nearly thirty years to forget the part I took in it. I feared too to disappoint your expectations.”[12] Cadwallader “Cad” Jones, a Confederate captain during the war, demonstrated similar reluctance and, apparently, seldom discussed the war prompting questions from his younger brother. Holding him in great esteem he was the only man in the world, Cad wrote, that “could have gotten me to write them [the letters referencing the war]. I have lived a life time, without writing any to you, and now that the end is so fast approaching, I feel most near to you, and am induced to try to make up so much lost time, while a few years is left to me.”[13] As Cad considered his own death, a desire for immortality and a need to release his long repressed stories compelled him to write to the person with whom he felt the closest.

Veterans’ recorded memories in the late nineteenth century lost the impact and power of the visceral reactions experienced in the war’s immediate aftermath, though even these accounts flamed old feelings.[14] Putting pen to paper reduced Robert Philip Howell to tears. “Never shall I forget my feelings” at the moment of military surrender. “I wept like a child and said I was sorry I had not been killed in the war. After a lapse of thirty-five years it wrings my heart to write about it.”[15] While Howell felt loss over a cause vanquished, Henry Bahnson questioned why he fought and killed. Recalling one of the final conflicts of the war, Bahnson remembered capturing a group of black Union soldiers. He vividly recalled the “boyish, beardless face” of one prisoner whose “strong stare” and “reproachful eyes” stayed indelibly etched in the writer’s mind for years, always begging the same question: “Why did I hate and in hatred, kill a fellow being . . . I had never seen, and who had never done me any injury?”[16]

Veterans’ perceptions and conceptions of the war were continually shaped and reshaped by their associations with other old soldiers. Having passed through the trial of war together many of these men continued their friendships well past military service. Many veterans, physically pained and exhausted, felt deep sorrows. Louisiana-native Jeptha McKinney, a Confederate veteran and struggling doctor, had been sickly since leaving the army and suffered from chronic diarrhea.[17] To the outside world he wore a cloak, an external disguise of cheer and happiness. But his “inward heart” labored “under an overwhelming weight of sorrow and trouble.”[18] Many such men sought out other veterans who could understand their trials. Munson Monroe Buford, a cavalryman from South Carolina, was greatly excited, for instance, to receive a letter from William G. Austin, “an old dear Army friend.” Buford hoped that the two men could plan a visit soon to “talk and fight our old Battles over.”[19] Julius A. Lineback—a former North Carolina regimental musician—felt “drawn, during and since the war,” to Daniel T. Crouse, a member of his regiment.[20] On the one hand, soldiers engaged each other because of prolonged familiarity. Having lived together in war, many continued to enjoy geographic proximity in the postbellum era. More deeply, only another soldier could relate fully to combat’s emotional toll, the rigors of prolonged outdoor living, and, when applicable, the physical pain from old wounds.[21] On the other hand, veterans sought each other out because white Southern men continued to struggle over their self-identities, both personal and public. Former Confederates’ performative statements and comforting words offered a bulwark for men who, now aged and infirm, lost their former positions of power.[22]

“Swan Swan H” questions at one point, “Hey captain, don’t you want to buy, Some bone chains and toothpicks?”[23] These trinkets of war offered haunting remembrance of the horrors of Civil War prisons. The Confederate captain had no need for such material reminders, for he still carried the emotional and psychological baggage of war. During a period of national reunion, scores of suffering ex-Confederates quietly tried to mend the wounds of war. Rather than offering tidy conclusions, the stories of these men remained unsettled as they tried to reconstitute themselves and their place in society. For the white sons of the South, the transition into civilian life proved haunting but pivotal to the South’s changing character. Veterans’ actions and experiences dictated the atmosphere and direction of postwar life in many Southern communities—their memories of the war and their struggles to find peace contributed to the social and political tumult of the Reconstruction-era. Though individual pains indeed lessened over time, the consequences of this period echoed for decades.

Dr. James J. Broomall (Ph.D., University of Florida) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Florida.


[1] R.E.M., “Swan Swan H,” written by R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986. On the song’s meanings and linkages to Civil War and Reconstruction, see Marcus Gray, It Crawled from the South: An R. E. M. Companion (1992; repr., New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), 282.

[2] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 4. The New South’s rise marked a departure from an antebellum social order; yet, instead of abandoning old values New South advocates emphasized the “Southernness” of their movement and romanticized the past out of which it came, see Paul Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study of Southern Mythmaking (1972; repr., Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books, 2002), 25-7 and 168-9. On the creation of collective or historical memory, see W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) and Bruce E. Baker, What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

[3] Edward Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007) and Blight, Race and Reunion.

[4] It was not until around the year 1880, Gerald Linderman contends, that Americans revived their interest in martial matters, see Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1989), 275, see 266-97. David Blight rightly questions Linderman’s strict dichotomy between “hibernation” (1865-80) and “revival” (post-1880) as too schematic and suggests instead a more fluid periodization, see Blight, Race and Reunion, 142, 149-50, 170.

[5] “THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIER,” 16 April 1868, Yorkville Enquirer.

[6] Carlton McCarthy, Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865 (1882; repr., Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 208.

[7] Sam R. Watkins, “Co. Aytch”: The Classic Memoir of the Civil War by a Confederate Soldier (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 242.

[8] Watkins, “Co. Aytch”, 245.

[9] James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 19. “Living Monuments,” is the memorable phrase used in R. B. Rosenburg’s excellent work on Confederate Soldiers’ Homes, see R. B. Rosenburg, Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers’ Homes in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[10] Rosenburg, Living Monuments, 12.

[11] On postwar rituals, commemorations, and celebrations, see Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) Chapter 4.

[12] Henry Theodore Bahnson, “Recollections of the War,” [N/D], Henry Theodore Bahnson Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; hereinafter SHC.

[13] Genl Jones [Cad Jones] to Brother, 20 September 1922, Box 1, Folder 6, Cadwallader Jones Papers, SHC.

[14] In recollecting war, as Paul Fussell posits, personal written materials move from the immediacy of the daily diary or letter to something more figurative and fictional, see Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1974; repr., New York and London: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2009), 299.

[15] Robert Philip Howell Memoirs, [N/D], SHC. Howell may not have been unusual among veterans, for, as Barbara Gannon charges, many postwar accounts by Union soldiers included traumatic memories, see Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 123-30.

[16] Bahnson, “Recollections of the War,” Bahnson Papers, SHC.

[17] Augusta McKinney to “Dear Uncle,” 28 July 1866, Box 2, Folder 11, Jeptha McKinney Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; hereinafter LSU.

[18] McKinney Diary, 14 July 1867, Box 3, Folder 4, McKinney Papers, LSU.

[19] M. M. Buford to Trick [Wm G. Austin], 22 Nov 1896, Box 2, Folder 7, Buford Papers, SHC.

[20] Julius A. Lineback Diary, 27 Feb 1904, Box 1, Volume 2, Folder 2-A, Julius A. Lineback Papers, SHC.

[21] An excellent discussion of these connections among men from another army is found in Brian Joseph Martin, Napoleonic Friendship: Military Fraternity, Intimacy & Sexuality in Nineteenth-century France (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2011).

[22] Larry Logue, To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995), 121-9. On performative statements and language, see Pierre Bourdieu, Language & Symbolic Power, trans., Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (1982; repr., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 223-6.

[23] R.E.M., “Swan Swan H,” written by R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986.

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