Prof: Cordial reunions, handshakes at Gettysburg not true to post-Civil War feelings

June 13, 2013  

Caroline Janney

Caroline Janney
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Photos depicting amicable veterans that will be displayed during the 150th anniversary of Civil War events this summer at Gettysburg don't accurately represent how many felt when the bloody conflict ended, according to a Purdue University history professor.

"There is an idea that the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War was exceptional because it was relatively peaceful, and this memory has been reinforced with images of veterans shaking hands at historic sites and posing together at various ceremonies and anniversaries," said Caroline E. Janney, an associate professor of history. "But pictures don't tell the whole story.  For example, I've found quotes from veterans referring to the blue-grey gush and admitting to remaining silent and shaking hands because that's what was expected of them."

Janney's research, which covers a 75-year period after the war, is based on speeches, letters and other private writings by veterans and from representatives of women's organizations. Her findings are published in the new book "Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation."

"Americans want to tell the story of a nation coming back together to heal, and that continues to shape the historical record," said Janney, who studies the Civil War and memory. "Scholars have been quick to accept this as well, but so have filmmakers who recognize that speaking negatively about either side might limit their audience."

"This notion of reconciliation was really just a notion. Reconciliation was something you did on special occasions, but for decades after the war many veterans felt in their heart of hearts visceral hatred and dislike toward their former enemies."

Reunion was about bringing the country back together politically as one nation, but reconciliation was harder to define, and veterans on both sides talked about it differently.

"Does it mean forgiving enemies for their transgressions or does it mean to be silent about differences? Reporters, writers, politicians, veterans and other leaders defined the term differently or left it vague but focused on the valor and bravery of both sides," Janney said. "But publicly, the idea of a reconciled nation was promoted, and often the war generation and their children went along with it for show."

Janney said that differences between reunion and reconciliation need to be understood even 150 years later.

"The danger in these unrealistic accounts is it whitewashes the causes of the war," she said. "Overwhelmingly, professional historians agree that slavery caused the war, but the same belief is not true among popular audiences. Why do Americans, especially whites, deny the centrality of slavery to secession and the war, while also incorrectly insisting that the Union war effort was mainly intended to destroy slavery?"

Debates about slavery sometimes proved to be some of the greatest challenges to reconciliation, Janney said. The 100th anniversary of the Civil War, 1961-1965, was marked during the Civil Rights era.

This summer is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle fought during the war and considered by many of the veterans the most important. It is the most visited American Military Park, and is often the backdrop to highlight reconciliation as it has been home to many anniversary and reenactment events. However, many veterans, both Union and Confederate felt otherwise.

"It was really a site of lingering animosity, but yet it's held up as a site of reconciliation," Janney said. "It's amazing how it went from a Union memorial park to a site of the most famous Blue-Gray reunions where veterans played along with the notion that differences were put to rest in the spirit of our united country."

"Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation" was published this month by The University of North Carolina Press.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Caroline Janney,

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Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a review copy of "Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation" can contact Regina M. Mahalek, director of publicity for University of North Carolina Press, at 919-962-0581 or

Caroline E. Janney is one of the presenters for the Gettysburg Foundation and Gettysburg National Military Park Sacred Trust Talks on July 5. She will present "Returning to the Field of Glory: Veterans at Gettysburg" at 11:30 a.m. 

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