The Story

March 6, 2010

America’s Missed Chance

For decades after the Civil War America moved gingerly, unsure how strong was the bond between North and South. Southerners resented and mourned their losses, protested their occupation under Reconstruction, fumed at Northern money flashed in their towns and cities even when it rebuilt their lives. Northerners scowled at ex-Confederates elected to governor’s mansions and Senate seats, saw Southern writers blacken the names of Grant and Sherman, and wondered out loud about Southern loyalty to the Stars and Stripes.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 helped. Former Confederates commanded cavalrymen from Pennsylvania and Illinois, and from Colorado and Oregon. One time Union navy captains commanded sailors from Virginia and Louisiana as well as from California and Nebraska. Ex-Union sergeant William McKinley in the White House presided over a “splendid little war” that ended in mere months. Yet still the questions lingered as war fever cooled and a new century began.

In 1913 America got another chance. After 2 years of planning and work by the Army, a veterans’ reunion was held at Gettysburg, 50 years after the Civil War battle. For a solid week 54,000 men from across the country and from both sides ate, drank, swapped yarns, shook hands and often forgave each other in tears. Under the anxious eyes of 100,000 civilians a day, and watched and written about by 200 eager reporters, America got a chance to heal her 2 sections, North and South.

Yet a bigger chance was missed.

After the 1913 Encampment Americans could really believe they were all one country again. But the encampment was a whites-only, segregated affair. An opportunity for a deeper, richer healing of the nation’s history was missed, and her future was still haunted.

Encampment tells the story of the Reunion that reunited America. The 54,000 men who had once marched, bled, starved and shot each other made peace in a striking, profound way that buried many of the old hatreds and soothed the hurts that still ached. But Encampment also adds the piece America missed in 1913: suppose the black veterans of the War had joined their comrades? What if the old blue bellies, the butternuts and Johnnies in gray, and also the colored infantry and troops, had worked through their frowns and misgivings, argued down their prejudices, and, as Lincoln put it, dared to embrace ‘the better angels of our nature’? What if the Encampment had not just reconciled blue with gray but also black with white? For one pivotal week America let her Civil War veterans lead the nation to the future. The old rivals made peace between the sections. What might have America done if they had made peace between races, even struck dead the very idea of race? Surely much suffering would have been avoided and we would be a people even stronger, even nobler, than we hope to be.

The Critics Say…

"...a believable and fascinating tale with well-developed characters"

- New York Journal of Books

"a fascinating look at the waning lives of those who fought during the Civil War, and the progress of equality"

- Midwest Book Review

"In this beguiling, important novel, Carl Eeman reinvents a world of 1912-14 in which our tortured struggle with Civil War memory and race relations might have had different outcomes... Every serious student and reader of history has wondered “what if?” In Eeman’s haunting characters and dialogues, and in his textured storytelling, Americans can see the genuine tragedy in our story of Civil War remembrance."

— David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory