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The United States’ Civic Myth of the Citizen-Soldier in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction

Brook Thomas

Pages 383 - 403



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Civic myths are stories a country tells itself that help determine a sense of national belonging. An important one in the United States evokes the legend of Cincinnatus, who allegedly abandoned his pastoral retreat to save Rome from military defeat only to return to his farm rather than assume political power. In the wake of the Civil War, when the Union was saved and slavery abolished by an army made up primarily of citizens rather than professional military men, the myth of the citizen-soldier took on increased importance, with conflicting effects. On the one hand, it helped immigrants and African Americans who served as soldiers make a case for citizenship. It was also used to criticize the inequities of postbellum society that adversely affected some veterans. On the other hand, the myth’s implied distrust of standing professional armies played a part in undermining the occupation of the South during Reconstruction, which was needed to protect freedmen after the war. White supremacists went so far as to exploit it in justifying the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, it shaped opinion on how former Confederate soldiers should be reintegrated into the national community, as they were memorialized more than former African American soldiers.

Keywords: citizen / soldier; U.S. Reconstruction; Cincinnatus; Ku Klux Klan; expatriation

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