As the country finds itself under the influence of partisan politics, it is both helpful and frustrating that we have been here before.
Jack Brubaker, veteran journalist and author of “Sons of East Tennessee: Civil War Veterans Divided and Reconciled,” documented the stories of two aging Civil War veterans who mourned the deaths of their sons at Knoxville National Cemetery in 1899.
“I came into this not knowing much about East Tennessee, and I found this story by chance – no one ever told it with all the names,” he said.
Those names are General Reuben Bernard, who fought for the Union, and Dr. William McCorkle, who served as a surgeon at Calvary for the Confederacy. They served in different theaters during the war and first met at the graves of their sons, both Army lieutenants and University of Tennessee graduates, who were killed together in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. .
Brubaker said Americans reading newspaper accounts at the time viewed the fathers meeting as a prime example of reconciliation between veterans, but the issue of bringing the nation together after the trauma of war was not straightforward.
“The Civil War was a complex war, like all wars, and it is difficult to sum up in a few sentences what reconciliation was then and how it might apply now, but I can tell you this: many veterans reconciled because they had fought and, as one soldier put it, “nothing unites people like standing up and shooting someone else,” Brubaker said. They all had the same experience whether they were on the Union side or the Confederate side and after the war the country was reunited and people had to do business with each other.”
Brubaker said veterans were gathering for meetings and gradually bitter feelings began to pass for most. For some, he said, the feelings had taken root to the point where Brubaker found, generations later, both in his native Pennsylvania and on his research trips under the Mason-Dixon line, people who still resent him.
Brubaker said historians believe that while most veterans were able to reconcile their differences, it’s important to note that reconciliation was not possible for everyone.
“What complicates things is that this was a white reconciliation,” he said. “Black people were completely excluded. It wouldn’t have worked if black people had been included. Southern whites were obviously racist and northern whites accepted that. So I wouldn’t say one was better than the other on racial issues and that continued throughout the 20th century. What the south has done, the north has accepted or done itself.
The story of the East Tennessee veterans’ encounter can be read in his book, which can be ordered online from traditional online booksellers.
Jack Brubaker writes a weekly column exploring the area’s history and culture for the Lancaster, Pennsylvania daily. He is a retired investigative journalist for LNP.
He has written seven books, including Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake (Penn State Press, 2002) and Massacre of the Conestogas (The History Press, 2010). He is a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage magazine.