Coming Home

Return of Veteran Troops on Furlough, Harper's Magazine, January 23, 1865

Return of Veteran Troops on Furlough, Harper’s Magazine, January 23, 1865

I received a letter recently from a woman who had read my novel, THE ONES THEY LEFT BEHIND. In it, she thanked me for writing the book, in part because it spurred her to go back into her family history. This in itself was startling, as she is well into her 80s.

On her stairs, there is a photograph of an old man with white hair and whiskers standing on a porch with other grizzled old men. She knew little about the picture, but after reading my book she went back into whatever old letters, diaries and photos she could find. She shared this story.

Her great-grandmother was dusting out a rug on her porch in Lewisburg, PA. It was June of 1865. The woman heard a whistle announcing the arrival of a train.  She could see the station and watched the train pull in. At first, no one got off. Finally a solitary soldier almost toppled onto the ground, then unsteadily raised himself up. He was clearly very drunk.  Her great grandmother watched the soldier stagger down the street, but curiously didn’t pay him any mind.  She had seen this many times before – soldiers returning home, either from leave during the war, or after they were mustered out once the war was over. They were often completely inebriated. She went back inside.

As she worked, she thought about the soldier and realized that the right thing to do was to offer him some water and possibly directions so he could find his way home in his drunken stupor. She went back outside with a glass of water. There before her in the street was the soldier standing in the sunlight. As she approached, she recognized her son.

That boy was the old man with the grizzled white beard and hair surrounded by his former soldiers, his band of brothers, looking out from a faded black-and-white photograph on her stairs.

This scene could just as easily have been played out in Clarksville, TN, Roswell, GA or Centerville, IA. And it did, in ten thousand other towns across America after Our War.

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It Cuts Both Ways

In my novel, THE ONES THEY LEFT BEHIND, there is a moment when the three travelers Harriman Hickenlooper, Lucinda McWhorter and Rufus Dewes stand before Abraham Lincoln’s crypt in Springfield, Illinois.

cover ones they left behind

“I still can’t believe they killed him,” Rufus said.

“I can,” Harriman answered.

“Why? I thought you loved Mr. Lincoln.”

“I do. Love cuts both ways.”

“I don’t understand.”

Harriman sat down on a bench near the crypt, staring at the other gravestones, listening to the sound of a caretaker’s broom sweeping on stone. “It was Easter time. The fourth spring of the war. We’d beaten Joe Johnston’s army at Bentonville and were chasing what was left of it around North Carolina…We knew it was over. Everyone felt this immense thrill…We entered this town, and like most towns, there was no one in sight when we arrived. We were relaxed, almost kidding around. Bugler sounded assembly and we formed up in the town square. Ridley read an announcement…President Lincoln had been shot and died on Good Friday. We couldn’t believe it…The boys were ready to torch the town right then. Ridley reminded us we had strict orders to maintain security and act like soldiers. He said General Sherman had ordered black bunting hung from every window in every town we came through…Lucas and me got to this one house and knocked on the door…At first, no one answered. I knew someone was home, I’d seen a face peer out from a window curtain. ‘Open the goddamned door, you dirty Rebel’. I was about to beat the door down when it swung open. The woman standing there didn’t look right.”

“What do you mean, din’t look right?” Lucinda asked.

“I mean, I could see she was young by how smooth and unwrinkled her skin was. But her hair was white, white as snow. She wore a black dress, like she’d been to a funeral…Lucas told her we had orders to hang this stuff from her balcony as a sign of mourning for our president.

“And she answered, ‘he is not my president.’

“I swear to God, I almost shot her right then. I told her we had orders to burn her house down if she didn’t comply.”

“This is an outrage,’ she said.

“Killing President Lincoln just when this war’s done, that’s the outrage!” I shouted.

“Her face turned the color of her hair. She grabbed my sleeve. ‘I have given a husband and a brother for our cause. Please, I beseech you. I will do as you order, but please leave my house. Leave me my dignity.’

I realized she had not heard the news yet. ‘Hurry it up. We’ll be watching.’

“The woman walked out onto her balcony overlooking the street. Some of the boys were yelling at her and catcalling. The woman ignored them and carefully wrapped the bunting around the iron railing, then wrapped it around her neck. She mounted the railing, looked me in the eye, and without missing a beat, jumped off. Just. Like. That…’

“Lord have mercy”, the caretaker mumbled. He crossed himself and moved off.

Lucinda held her hand over her mouth.

Rufus wrote in his diary.

“She loved her cause as deeply as I loved mine,” Harriman said. “And she gave her life for it, even after it was lost. It cuts both ways.”

It is arguably as great a tragedy as the catastrophic war that preceded it that Lincoln never lived to put into actions the great healing and reconciliation he so longed for, so eloquently articulated in his Second Inaugural Address barely a month before his death,  and that the country needed so desperately. “…Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged…”

See if his closing words do not powerfully resonate now. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In other words, to build A House United.


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For My Captain

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863 (1)To my hero, Abraham Lincoln. I am forever grateful for your service to our country. By your words and your deeds, you showed us what it means to live by the better angels of our nature.

May we be blessed to have a leader like you again some day.

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Connecting the Dots

Connect the Dots by emilybean on Flickr

I’m sure we remember the drawing exercise we did as children, the one where we connected a seeming maze of dots on a piece of paper. We didn’t know where we were going, but once we finished, we saw a complete picture.

I am frequently asked, how is the Civil War and Reconstruction relevant to the state of our country now? So many times I have seen a blank expression pass over a younger person’s face when I describe what happened so long ago. More often than not, they cannot find a meaning that’s relevant to them.

Some say, “I’m not responsible for things that happened so long ago well before I was born.” True enough. There are two generations of Germans who find it hard or unacceptable to assume any guilt or responsibility for their grandparents’ roles in the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and all it wreaked on the world. So it is also true for people who live seven generations after the Civil War and Reconstruction.

But when I talk about income inequality and the 1%; PTSD; women’s rights or partisan political paralysis, something shifts in the conversation. Perhaps people are being touched personally by some or all of these things. Let’s look at each one and see if we find any connections between then and now.

Income inequality and the 1% – Could anyone argue that slavery is the purest manifestation of income inequality, since the laborer had no income at all? Or that the slaveowner made profits derived from a free cost for labor that would make any member of today’s 1% jealous? But it isn’t just the slaveowner that reaped the rewards of free labor. It’s the shipowners and captains and crews transporting  first slaves from Africa to America, then the cotton they grew over to Europe; overseers moving chain gangs from the coast to the plantations inland; slave brokers selling their commodity on the wharfs of Charleston and Savannah; railroad owners hauling millions of tons of cotton to Northern ports and cities; New England textile mill owners turning the cotton into cloth for the world; Northern investors who created land trusts (a version of today’s hedge funds) to buy cheap Southern land to grow more cotton.  Behind it all, a vast financial system, national and international in scope provided cash and credit to capitalize the most powerful engine of the American economy of the 19th century.  Everyone along the economic chain derived enormous benefits from slavery. The legacies of wealth that were created by that chain survive to this day. One could say that they are the charter members of the 1%.

PTSD – I am surprised when people say that they do not associate PTSD with Civil War veterans. Maybe it’s because it was called something else – “nostalgia” – a medical diagnosis for veterans thought to be at high risk of suicide. What is clear is PTSD is as old as war, even though it can affect anyone who has experienced deep trauma (who has not?) What is more striking as it relates to our history is to remember that 750,000 people died in Our War, and a multiple of that number came home wounded, maimed, traumatized. Such loss dwarfs any loss from any war in our history. And yet, more than ever PTSD remains a critical and growing problem in bringing our veterans home now.

Women’s rights – I would assert that the Civil War was the catalyst for the emergence of women’s awareness and application of both their rights and their capabilities, for one simple reason – most all the men were gone, many never came home, and many still came home maimed and incapable of working.  Who was left to do what needed to be done in the home, in the community, in the workplace, not just during the war, but after it? Who learned by doing and by taking responsibility in areas never before asked or expected of them? That it would take another seventy years for women to get the vote is amazing. That equal pay for equal work is still an issue in our society today is more amazing still.

Partisan political paralysis – If one reviewed just two of the burning issues that confronted our republic and the political parties that exercised power in the decades before Our War, as well as the struggles to frame the proper words of our Founding Documents – existence of and expansion or limitation of slavery in newly admitted states, states’ rights vs. federal authority – one can see a pattern of consistent compromise to avoid the ultimate realization that one day, there was no more compromise to be made. Something had to give. And give it did, culminating in the most disastrous calamity in our history. Are we there now? The battle lines seem drawn, there is no dialogue, no compromise (it’s a dirty word in some circles), not even an agreement to disagree as a starting point to forge consensus. The result is that the people’s business is not getting done.

As citizens, we cannot be held accountable for events that happened one hundred and fifty years ago. How could we? But we can hold ourselves accountable to learn about, to seek to know what happened then and recognize that the challenges that Our War and Reconstruction brought into crystal clear detail back then remain our challenges today. What we have learned, or not learned, about meeting these challenges is the ultimate test of our national character.  We don’t stand a chance of passing that test unless and until we see the whole picture. We need to start connecting the dots.

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Review for THE ONES THEY LEFT BEHIND from The Civil War News


Excellent Novel About  A Veteran’s Postwar Mission

The Ones They Left Behind by Antonio Elmaleh. Historical fiction. Map, 260 pp., 2014, Antonio Elmaleh,, $22.95.

Every so often a book comes along that makes the past profoundly rele­vant to the present. Such is the case with Antonio Elmaleh’s new historical novel, The Ones They Left Behind.

His book is a breath of fresh air given our current state of affairs in a deeply divided United States. Not only does the book resonate with hope and redemption, but it touches on other issues and pathos that we as a nation contend with, including the plight of being a wounded warrior.

The core of the story revolves around Union veteran Harriman Hickenlooper, a soldier in the 6th Iowa Volunteer Infantry who partici­pated in Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In 1867 he sets out to retrace that route in an effort to resolve his own inner demons and rediscover that peo­ple at their deepest level are kind, compassionate and forgiving.

His faith in humanity is central to the premise of the book. So certain is Hickenlooper that he will not be harmed as he makes his way across Georgia that he literally bets his farm on it.

On this venture he wears his Union uniform but does not carry a firearm, just a faded American flag. What tran­spires along the 245 pages of Elmaleh’s terrific prose and narrative verve is a story that will tug at the reaoer’s heart strings without dripping into maudlin sentimentality.

While his journey seems to be absurd and utopian in concept, Hickenlooper defies all convention in this absolute page-turner.

His escapade is a one-man truth­ and-reconciliation commission, mostly seeking to resolve his inner turmoil, but also to make amends to others he· encountered when he was in Sherman’s military juggernaut.

The ever-idealistic Hickenlooper not only wants to make peace within himself, but also for the nation, which is struggling to emerge from the frat­ricidal carnage of the Civil War in one of the most devastated regions of the country. On his journey Hickenlooper confronts not only his demons, but all of humanity’s deepest sins: wrath, envy and deeply rooted prejudice.

All of the characters in the novel are multi-dimensional and believable. Elmaleh is skillful in weaving issues of gender and race against this dark backdrop. One of the most poignant scenes is Hickenlooper’s reburial of his brother, whose remains he recov­ers on his journey.

One of the novel’s most significant characters is not human at all, but rather a clock that serves as the metaphor for time and has a much deeper meaning in the plot’s context. So in some ways this novel is a mys­tery, with all the tension inherent in one, and the clock’s character pushes the novel forward in a well-paced, but frenetic manner.

The bet on his farm in Centreville, Iowa, requires Harriman to complete his journey from Centreville to Savannah, Ga., and back, unharmed, in 44 days.

Given the mysterious nature of aspects of the novel, readers might expect that the twists that occur along the way would be dark. But the genius of The Ones They Left Behind is they are not.

Rather, they remind us of the potential for good that each person has­ within himself, and readers are not left feeling forlorn or depressed. While the book is readable, it is deeply contemplative without being pushy in matters of morality.

The conclusion is a stunner, too!

This book is highly recommended on a number of levels. It is a pure joy to read. Also, anyone who has an interest in the frailty and glory of the human heart or the price everyone pays when a nation goes to war should read The Ones They Left Behind.

James A. Percoco

James A. Percoco Is Teacher-in­ Residence for the Civil War Trust and The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, the author of Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments, and a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.


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Follow the Money, Part II

Running the "Machine," circa 1864

Running the “Machine,” circa 1864

In my previous post, I commented on a post by Andrew Schmookler regarding his view that Republicans bear the primary responsibility for the partisan gridlock that grips our national discourse and paralyzes the working of the people’s business, i.e. government. I sought to refute this position, as tempting as it might be to find a primary perpetrator, on the grounds that both parties bear responsibility for creating and sustaining a system of political and economic unfairness and preferential treatment.

In an earlier post, I attempted to trace the chain of economic transactions – bringing slaves from Africa (shipowners and captains), selling slaves (slave brokers) at the dock, transporting slaves  from the coastal ports of the South to the plantations (so-called “Georgia men”), growing cotton and breeding (planters), hauling the cotton North (railroad magnates), milling the cotton (New England textile manufacturers), shipping the cotton overseas (ship owners and captains, they got paid twice!!), cotton brokers in London and Liverpool selling American cotton everywhere else – that helped make America the strongest economy in the world.

Implicit in and crucial to this chain was a banking and investing system that invested and lent credit at every step of the way. How else did cotton become the single most powerful engine of economic growth of the nineteenth century? When you look at this chain or this financing system, do you see just one political party represented? Of course not. There were too many varied interests and sectional proclivities for one party or bank to encompass them all. Each interest paid to play at the larger political party, financing the representation of its interest through legislation designed to promote and protect itself. And so it goes now.

Where I particularly find fault with Schmookler’s discussion is its omission of a non-partisan solution to this gridlock. There is not one single Democratic administration in the last one hundred years (and there have been more Democratic than Republican over that time) that has championed the public financing of elections.  Why not? Because to enact such a system would dismantle the very system that is as crucial to the Democratic Party to preserve and protect its interests as that of the Republican Party. In fact, they thrive under the same system of paying for public servants to enact  policy and legislation for the protection of those interests. The arguing and the posturing obscure something far more disturbing. We live in an oligarchy of both parties’ making.

That’s why public financing is typically called the Third Rail of Successful Party Politics. It derails the train all party politics rolls on. And nobody will touch it.

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Follow the Money

Thomas Nash illustrates the platform of the Democratic Party in the 1864 Presidential Election.  Originally published in Harper's Weekly.

Thomas Nash illustrates the platform of the Democratic Party in the 1864 Presidential Election. Originally published in Harper’s Weekly.

Recently I read Andrew Schmookler’s article entitled, “The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back” in the Huffington Post.  It is both compelling and disturbing, both inpinpointing similarities between the cultural and political divides that existed then and still persist today and in the intimation that darker days may come. It is also partisan in its own right. Therein lies why it falls short to me.

What I found wanting in his analysis is searching for and finding something deeper – a recognition that the timeless clash of partisan party (a political structure the Founding Fathers abhorred) is the sideshow away from a larger and more profound clash. If you look at what today’s Republican Party stands for, you will find it called the Democratic Party in the decades before the War. Similarly today’s Democratic Party mirrors positions and policies of the Whig and subsequent Republican Party of antebellum America. Why are these labels interchangeable? Because they mask the deeper conflict between those who maintain a monopoly of resources across the most important sectors of the economy – financial, commercial, distributive, communication…and everyone else. The 1% agenda does not recognize social conscience, moral rectitude, even national interest. It marches to one drum –increasing ownership of everything through the establishment and preservation of monopoly. This is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue. It is the issue that forces us to ask what kind of country are we supposed to be and want to be, and what kind of country we really are.

We have all been taught what we were founded on and fought for in our two most critical wars, Revolutionary and Civil – democracy, equality before the law, equal opportunity. What I don’t believe we have absorbed nearly as completely is that we have always been a country controlled by a 1%. Not recognizing this central fact is the essential ingredient that accomplishes precisely what the 1% always needs to do – to create, preserve and protect monopoly by pitting various sectors of society against one another through the legislative agendas of the two parties.

In my next post on this subject, I will attempt to ‘follow the money” of the slave system to show how that system was the founding bedrock upon which the 1% controlled and steered the course of the American economy. Its legacy remains at the root of income inequality in our country today.


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