Editorial: Are Confederate Veterans United States Veterans?

In the past few months, the public has been swept up in debates about the place of Confederate memory and identity in American culture and society. While the debates started mainly around the use of the Confederate flag in South Carolina in the wake of the tragic shooting there this summer, the discussion has spread far beyond that. For Americans, opening up the “can of worms” that is Civil War memory brings forward emotional arguments along the same fault lines of the 1860s because of how deep the war’s legacy runs in our national story. One of the arguments that I came across a few times was whether or not Confederate veterans were considered veterans of the United States; which, if they were, would impact other arguments about use of Confederate symbols at cemeteries and other memorial events or the place of Confederate monuments in society.

Many of us, both historians and the public, consider the combatants on both sides of the Civil War to be Americans.  For example, the oft-repeated statistics of 620,000 (or more) American deaths in the war include both Union and Confederate numbers.  When historians tout the statistics that more Americans died in the Civil War than almost all the other American conflicts combined, both blue and gray are included in those numbers.  Abraham Lincoln, who never recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate States of America believed throughout the war that Confederates were Americans in rebellion. Reconciliation and the formation of Civil War memory also brought men in both blue and grey together under one umbrella in many ways.

After the war, most former Confederates quickly regained U.S. Citizenship. President Lincoln began the process in 1863 with the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. It allowed for a full pardon to those fighting for the South with the exception of the highest Confederate political and military leaders. At the end of the war, in May 1865, President Johnson offered a similar proclamation requiring those seeking pardon to take the oath of loyalty to the United States and obey federal laws about slavery. In his proclamation Johnson listed fourteen classes of people ineligible for pardons; the number of restrictions was then reduced in an 1867 proclamation.

Full amnesty for former Confederates came on December 25, 1868 in a final proclamation from Johnson:

Now, therefore, be it known that I, Andrew Johnson President of the United States, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested by the Constitution and in the name of the sovereign people of the United States, do hereby proclaim and declare unconditionally and without reservation, to all and to every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States or of adhering to their enemies during the late civil war, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.

This proclamation gave full amnesty and the restoration of all citizenship rights to Confederate veterans. As Reconstruction continued, former Confederates largely resumed life as American citizens, with the exception of losing their property in slaves.

The main controversy on the internet about the status of Confederate veterans seems to center on two pieces of legislation passed by Congress in 1958.  The first is part of Public Law 85-425, an act passed on May 23, 1958 dealing with pension rate increased for widows’ pensions for the “Spanish-American War, Civil War, Indian War, and Mexican War, and…widows of veterans who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.”  Section (e) of the law states “For the purpose of this section…the term ‘veteran’ includes a person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War…”

The legislation continues later to clarify: “The Administrator shall pay to each person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War a monthly pension in the same amounts and subject to the same conditions as would have been applicable to such person under the laws in effect December 31, 1957, if his service in such forces had been service in the military or naval service of the United States.”

The second piece of legislation—Public Law 85-811 passed August 28, 1958—deals with the procurement of Government headstones for veterans.  It amends a previous act from 1948 and states “That the Secretary of the Army is authorized and directed to furnish, when requested, appropriate Government headstones or markers at the expense of the United States for the unmarked graves of the following…”  The first category listed is “Soldiers of the Union and Confederate Armies of the Civil War.”

Of course, by the time these two laws were enacted most Civil War veterans had passed and there were very few widows remaining to receive the benefits of these laws.  The question debated on social media is whether this legislation officially deemed former Confederates to be United States veterans.  In essence, do the laws just cover the bureaucratic procedures of widows’ pensions and headstone procurement, or do they have a broader meaning that accepts all combatants of the Civil War into the fold of United States veterans?

I admittedly do not have the answer to this question.  On the one hand, accepting Confederate soldiers into the federal definition of “veteran” for pensions and government-issued headstones seems to be a pretty strong statement of inclusion into two benefits reserved for members of the United States’ armed forces.  And, by the twentieth century—particularly after WWI—there was an attitude that accepted all Southern veterans into the national story because southerners had served faithfully on the front lines in Europe. On the other hand, there is still a very prevalent sentiment that Confederate soldiers were traitors to the United States and should not be considered veterans of the nation. And, there are plenty of Confederate cemeteries that do not receive the government oversight that national cemeteries receive. Plus, it is important to note that the legislation of the 1950s were not pardons (since that came in the 1860s) and that pardon does not meant that the treason did not occur (just that the men would not be punished for their actions).  So an additional question might be, does the acceptance of Confederates as American veterans decade later mean they were acting as American soldiers during the war? I think few could argue in the affirmative.

I found the debate interesting and would love to hear from our readers what their thoughts are. I am no expert on this topic, so feel free to share your own knowledge and insights into the debate.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.

Some other articles on the subject; they are both biased to their side, but the comments are very interesting to read:

"Busting the Myth that Congress Made Confederate vets into U.S. vets"

"Confederate Soldiers are American Veterans by Act of Congress"