Going Home: How The End Of The American Civil War Was A Distinctly Different Experience For The Soldiers Of Each Side.

by Daniel Russ on March 18, 2013

Unidentified Civil War Soldiers


In the mid 19th century, news didn’t quite travel at blazing speeds. After Appomattox, troops north to south were still engaged in armed conflict. Some 20,000 men clashed in Columbus, Georgia on April 12th, 1865, days after the surrender. Isolated units west of the Mississippi fought for weeks before they met other Confederate troops winding their way home through rural country roads who informed them of the bad news. Furthermore, communications had been interdicted when Union troops downed telegraph lines and melted railroads. When the news came, it arrived weeks after the fact, a fait accompli; and whether one dreaded the news or rejoiced, it came slowly. Often it was met on the Confederate side with derision and disbelief. Threadbare and hungry, most of the men under the command of Lee were still willing to fight to the bitter end. Like so many surrendering armies, this imprecated the Confederates for a century. To many, Lee had betrayed them and their sacrifices. How could he give in to an army that he had whipped so decisively under the worst odds?


As the news hit, the Confederates took their meager belongings and headed home mostly barefoot and on the road all the way home. The Union Army exacted no great punishments on the defeated Confederates, only that the take their weapons and their rucksacks and head home. What tenuous rail lines that were still running in the south were taxed to their maximum capacity. Often trains would stop and people would unload and camp beside the tracks as engineers had to reconstitute lines that were sabotaged as a matter of war. The tens of thousands of Confederates who headed home also had to find a way to feed themselves, and that might be begging at the doorstep of homes that had already been picked clean of provisions. The problem with the south in 1865 was not so much the surrender as it was the poverty.


Impecunious times breed bad behavior. Confederates who were famished and denied food took umbrage at the slight. Here they had fought for the right of the Confederacy to exist and they can’t even find a morsel off the spit. Horrible as the war was, more horror awaited citizens who happened to be on the same path as a band of drunken ex infantrymen. Armed and inured to violence, the vanquished army sometimes dishonored itself by despoiling places and people who had done nothing other than suffer with the indignities of war at home. Whole acephalous divisions headed home on the same roads often behaving like the armed teenagers that they were. Of course there were those soldiers who felt there was nothing to return to, and thusly they organized themselves  into ultimately small gangs of brigands who ambushed and robbed.


Often the road back home revealed more bad news – a ruined home, or a missing family, now refugees in an unknown place in a time without the resources to track people. For many, homecoming took years. And in a few instances, men found their wives to be remarried having taken them for dead and given up hope. Many I am sure, never found their families.


When Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, the date was July 4th, 1863. The date was laden with shame such that not until the 1920s did Mississippi entertain or celebrate Independence Day. Needless to say, there were no parades for the southerners. Often there were boos and whistling and spitting that accompanied young soldiers who stumbled through town in tatters looking for something familiar. For the Southern citizens on the routes back home, there was a constant procession of hungry boys asking for something, anything to eat, perhaps just permission to dip a bucket into a well.




..For many the trip back was bitter sweet. They were returning to their homes, somewhat poorer, but alive nonetheless. They would live to see their wives and their children, and these children would grow into a country that was once again united. Yet the landscape they passed was strewn with destruction: razed cities, corpses, and graves. For most southerners, there was a deep shame and humiliation.



                                                   Kentucky Civil War Marker


For the Union soldiers the end of the American Civil War was much different. Already the Union had erected monuments and opened commemorative sites and museums to preserve for posterity the stories of the battles fought. By the time the southerners were on their way home, trying to piece together their lives, politicians were already panegyrizing their own heroes and patting themselves on the back for emerging victorious. The enemy had been defeated decisively. The slave holders had deucedly kept the Negroes down after the war, but they could not legally hold them as property. And that knowledge sat as comfort and warmth in the hearts of Americans who had struggled so hard to extirpate the country from the stain of slaving.


Union soldiers made it home much faster on rail lines that had emerged from the war functional or perhaps even improved in the last four years. The ride was comfortable, perhaps crowded, and in a few days the Union soldier was back in his job, and in his home, and in his relative affluence. In towns from New York to Philadelphia Union soldiers came home to railings festooned with bunting and flowers. Bands played American patriotic songs: All Quiet On The Potomac Tonight, by John Hill Hewett, or Tramp Tramp Tramp by  George Root, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. On that note, the Union Army knew the value of music. It had 618 bands and 28,000 musicians. The returning Union soldier was feted with wine and cakes and music, and the sweet taste of victory.



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