n honor of Memorial Day (the traditional date of May 30), and under the assumption that no one can get too much of The Corporal, Jim Marten offers yet another blog on James Tanner.
In February 2012 I posted a blog (“Reflections on a Man With No Feet,”) on a project about a disabled Civil War veteran that became America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). A couple of months later, in a phone call I reported in another blog (“It will sound rather strange to you . . . “: A Phone Call, A Letter, and the Corporal), a New Jersey woman offered to send me a rather surprising and moving letter from the Corporal to an old comrade. I knew of only a handful of other surviving letters from Tanner, and this small find inspired a poignant paragraph in the book’s conclusion.
So America’s Corporal appeared in print in May 2014—and three months later, out of the blue, an email appeared offering a trio of letters written by my favorite Civil War veteran. Each came from a different period in Tanner’s life. (Although the author of the original email readily sent me scans of the letters, he never answered my questions about his background or his interest in Tanner.)
The first, dated mid-November 1863, was written a little over a year after the Battle of Second Manassas, where Tanner lost the lower third of both legs as an eighteen-year-old Union soldier. Tanner was writing from West Richmondville, New York, his home town just west of Albany, but this may be the period in his life when he was taking a course in shorthand at a business school in Syracuse. He’s writing to a James Sprague of Brooklyn, New York, pleading for news about James’s brother Jonathon, “the dearest friend I had in the army,” and one of the men, Tanner explains, who had carried him from the battlefield as the Union army collapsed around them. Someone had told Tanner that his friend had lost a leg in battle. “Can this be so?” he asked. The slightly older Jonathon had been a friend and a mentor to Tanner, who closed by writing, “Hoping to hear from you soon and to learn where he lost his leg and where bouts it was taken off and also wishing that He who offers the wind to the shore land will in His mercy restore our brother to health.” Unfortunately, Jonathon died of his wounds; Tanner would mention him from time to time throughout his long life.
Tanner wrote the second letter twenty years later, after he had moved to New York and then to Brooklyn, where he served for a number of years as Collector of Taxes. It’s a friendly letter to Arthur Spitzer, an official in the Richmond Customs House who was apparently involved with creating a badge for an organization for Confederate veterans. Tanner offers some advice about the design and about pricing. He knew what he was talking about—by this time he had served two terms as Commander of the New York state branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (the main organization for Union veterans) and was one of the best-known Memorial Day speakers in the region. He would eventually serve as national commander and his name would be synonymous with veterans’ issues by the 1890s. Tanner also become famous for accepting the end of the war as the end of hostilities between the sections; his commitment to “reconciliation” would lead him to speak at many Confederate veteran events and at the laying of the cornerstone of the controversial Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1912. Tanner’s specific advice is interesting: although Spitzer is working on a badge for a Virginia organization Tanner thinks bigger: he suggests that the badge “should be a badge for all the ex-Confederates.” Rather than using the Virginia coat of arms, “it strikes me that you should have the coat of arms of the Confederacy. I presume that in those days of high hope you indulged in such a trifling luxury.” Tanner managed to be encouraging and a little condescending at the same time; it seems that the Confederate veterans did not take his advice.
The third letter was written six years later, in September 1889. A lot happened in the meantime: Tanner’s rise to prominence in the GAR and in the Republican Party had led to his appointment in spring 1889 by the newly elected President Benjamin Harrison to the prestigious and lucrative position as Commissioner of Pensions. The letter is typewritten in a jazzy, italicized font, on Pension Bureau stationary. Tanner administered thousands of employees and millions of dollars in pension payments (which comprised the largest single item in the federal budget at that time). Tanner’s high-flying responsibilities were short-lived, however: he immediately got into trouble with his superiors, including the president, over certain policies and practices and his ruthless firing of Democratic clerks. This letter was written less than a week after Tanner had submitted his forced-resignation. Yet, as he declared in this fourteen-line note, “the report of the investigating Commission contained no reflections upon my character and integrity.” His only fault—this is one of those “faults” that is really not a fault at all—“is that I was too liberal and too hasty in the adjudication of just claims of needy comrades. On these charges I am willing to be judged by the boys [other veterans].” In fact, the purpose of the letter was to return an application for a job in the pension bureau, since Tanner would no longer be in charge. But he used the occasion to show that he remained unbowed and steadfast in his support for fellow disabled veterans. He would continue to work on behalf of soldiers and, along the way, make a small fortune as a claims agent for veterans applying for pensions.
Although interesting, these letters won’t require a new edition of America’s Corporal. Indeed, they have no real historical significance, other than to further confirm the sometimes conflicting character of the feisty, emotional, patriotic, and often kind Corporal Tanner. They do, however, prove the truism that the sources we have at hand for any given project are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of sources that were lost, burned, hidden, or otherwise denied to posterity. Yet we soldier on, and when we’re lucky we get to write about guys like The Corporal, these letters let me spend another hour or two with him.
Jim Marten is professor and chair of the history department. You can find out more about America’s Corporal at ttp://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/index/americas_corporal.