Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Billy Yank and Johnny Reb Come Marching Home, 1865

(from the March 27, 1991, Lowell Tribune, page 3)

Toward the end of the Civil War, only a few Lake County soldiers were mustered out and returned home. In April and May of 1865, when the South surrendered, the complicated process of sending the rest of the men home began.

When news of the surrender reached the Union camps, only a few of the men cheered, while others fired their rifles in the air to celebrate. Most of the soldiers met the news thoughtfully, and solemnly, with a surprising measure of compassion for the feelings of their foes. They were simply glad they had won and that it was all over, so that they could go on with their former lives. They had never wanted to fight their own countrymen, it was apparent.

In the Southern Army, a trooper remarked, "There seemed to be no hope for the future -- it was the blackest day of out lives." Neither enlisted man nor officer spoke, except to comfort one another, and many simply melted into the countryside. Many buried their flags and broke their rifles against trees, but they were soon eating food from Yankee supply wagons. Many of the Union men crossed the lines of their own accord to renew old friendships and ask about relatives fighting on the other side.

At the time of the surrender, the Union Army had over one million men in uniform spread all over the United States. General Sherman's Army included men from 17 states, so it was practical to break the regiments away from the Corps to ease the way home for the militiamen. The long process of bringing the men home on trains and ships began, with many delays caused by the paperwork for payrolls and final discharges.

Soon the trains and boats of the south, along with the roads, were teeming with tens of thousands of blue clad soldiers on their way home. The joy of peace must have lightened their step, for Sherman's army was able to march 156 miles to Richmond in just five and a half days!

Some of the men, accustomed to foraging during the war years, had to be restrained with strict orders to respect private property on the way home. In most cases it was an orderly march.

Due to the government's customary "hurry up and wait" processing, some of the Union men took off on their own, not intending to wait for their discharge. They were soon returned and took part in the drills and parades until the final day.

The most impressive of all parades took place on May 23, 1865, when the Army of the Potomac passed in review down Pennsylvania Ave. in the nation's capitol, followed by General Sherman's men, who proudly marched through the following day. From a Civil War veteran's diary: "We were in the grand review at Washington, and on the reviewing stand was President Johnson and his cabinet and Generals Grant, Sheridan, Sherman and Logan. It was a grand sight."

By May 29, 1865, the first regiments were on their way home by rail, with 40 more days required to send the rest of them home, pressing into service the entire transportation system of the North. As they arrived in their home states the regiments were broken up into companies and returned to their original muster locations. Celebrations sprang up all over Lake County that month, and touching scenes of old friends reunited after years apart were repeated throughout the region. Brothers were reunited, families rejoined, all amid the familiar scenes of their boyhood. Old army friends then parted and the former soldiers went off to civilian life once more.

Two hundred and seventy million dollars, army pay that was held back until the last days, was dispursed to the 800,000 Union men who were mustered out by Nov. 15, 1865. During February of 1866, another 150,000 men were sent home, leaving the United States Army with only 80,000 soldiers scattered among posts in the South and the Far West. According to history books, most of the Lake County men were home by November 1865.

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It was a totally different story for the Confederate soldier, for when he turned in his weapons and signed his parole, he was no one's responsibility. He had no government to turn to, he received no issue of pay, and no provisions were made for his transportation home.

Luckier were those artillery men and cavalry troops who were allowed to keep the horses they claimed were theirs. But most rebel soldiers had to rely on their two feet to get them home, and soon the roads of the South were crammed with the former Confederates walking throught the land that was in no condition to sustain them.

A New York correspondent wrote, "I saw poor, homesick boys and exhausted men wandering about in thread-bare uniforms, with scanty outfit of slender haversack and blanket roll, seeking the nearest route home; they have a careworn and anxious look, a played-out manner." When they finally made the long trek to their homes, they found buildings either destroyed by the armies or else run down by neglect, cities in ruins, forests cut down, and transportation systems in shambles.

Some of the former soldiers became guerillas, but soon abandoned that impractical alternative. Others joined a few generals who led their command into Mexico, some even going on into other countries. Most of them eventually returned, however, for they longed for their old homes in the South.

Because of the continued resistance of some of these bands, the official termination of the war was not declared until Aug. 20, 1866. Some of the discharged soldiers continued action in the so-called "Wild West." Some remarked: "We just wore ourselves out whipping the Yanks."

For all of the Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks who went home after the war, there lay ahead a new life unlike that known by generations before them.

Boys who ordinarily might never have set foot outside their home counties had seen a dozen states, traveled thousands of miles, explored cities beyond their dreams before the war and sailed on ships to many ports.

They were changed men, with greater awareness, a wider vision, and more self-confidence. They were soon ready to change the course of the nation and conquer the West.

Both the Blue and the Gray took part in reshaping the re-united nation, and some of the Gray donned the Blue to serve in the Western Army and fight in the 1898 war with Spain.

General "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, a famous Confederate Cavalry officer in the Civil War, fought with distinction in the Spanish-American War. The veterans became interested in politics, sat in the halls of the U.S. Congress and the legislatures, and founded industries and corporations.

Both sides formed veterans organizations to gather for fraternal purposes and lobby for pensions and other veterans' rights. The Grand Army of the Republic, as the Union vets called their organization, soon became the most powerful political and social lobbying force of the era. The men were finally given pensions, with former rebels and their widows even being paid. Where else in the world would a victorious government pay benefits to the men who had fought to destroy it?

Thousands of Civil War veterans attended a massive 50-year reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, with only a few thousand left to visit Pennsylvania in 1938 for the 75th anniversary. The last of the Civil War veterans passed away during the 1950's. All are gone now, but they are remembered for their dedication, sacrifice and loyalty with a place in history.

Last updated on July 26, 2001.

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