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The Legacy of the Civil War in Indiana

Nicole Etcheson
Ball State University


Planning a Civil War Monument

One winter night a decade after the Civil War, a group of veterans met in the printing shop of the Greencastle Republican newspaper. The editor, George J. Langsdale, proposed a monument in downtown Indianapolis. He later presented the idea to the state’s first veterans’ reunion in Indianapolis. Eventually, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, took over the project but later ceded control to the state. In 1887, the General Assembly appropriated $200,000 for the monument, and Langsdale was selected as president of the commission to build it.  The completed monument was dedicated in 1902. At the laying of the cornerstone in 1889, Langsdale had said that the monument “will testify to all beholders that the brightest page in the history of the state is the record of its valor, and that it will never be forgotten.”

President Benjamin Harrison attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the Circle on August 22, 1889. Source: Manuscripts and Rare Books, Indiana State Library.

The monument captured many aspects of the Civil War’s legacy in Indiana. In a dispute about which way the statue of victory should face, Langsdale favored south, towards the former Confederacy, where Hoosier soldiers had fought and triumphed. Others wanted Victory to face westward, towards the State House. Despite the fact that Indiana and the nation were well into a period of reconciliation in which northern triumphalism was giving way to celebration of the equal valor and nobility of both Union and Confederate soldiers, Langsdale prevailed. The monument in Indianapolis was also unique in showing a slave with broken shackles. The state’s monuments at major battlefields such as Shiloh, Antietam, or Gettysburg celebrated the soldiers’ heroism, not their participation in emancipation. This too was typical of the reconciliationist downplaying of slavery as a cause of the war for either side. A Greencastle minister, F.C. Iglehart, protested that by the late 1870s increasing numbers were willing to accept “that the conquerors were mistaken—the conquered right” in their allegiance to states’ rights. “What did the South fight for,” Iglehart asked, “unless it was the liberty to lash the slave and lynch the loyal man?” That the speech was controversial merely proved the minister’s point about the triumph of reconciliationist sentiment.

Party Politics after the Civil War

Republicans who had achieved power in Indiana because of wartime issues struggled to maintain it after the war. Republican advocacy of black rights alienated many Hoosiers, but Republicans invoked the alleged disloyalty of Democrats during the Civil War to secure voters’ allegiance. Governor Oliver P. Morton was an early master of what came to be called “waving the bloody shirt.” In a June 1866 speech, Morton insisted, “Every man who labored for the rebellion in the field, who murdered Union prisoners by cruelty and starvation, who conspired to bring about civil war in the loyal States . . . calls himself a Democrat.” The Democratic Party is, Morton claimed, “a common sewer and loathsome receptacle, into which is emptied every element of treason North and South.”  But a decade later, a Republican politician warned that a “bloody shirt campaign” would lose Indiana. Indeed in 1876, Indiana went for Samuel Tilden, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1860. Republican dominance at the presidential level could be misleading. Indiana Democrats recaptured the General Assembly in 1870 and the governorship two years later. In fact, Indiana’s politics mattered nationally precisely because it was a swing state. Four Hoosiers served as vice president and one as president between the Civil War and World War I, and many more served on party tickets that did not win. Placing a Hoosier on a ticket was one way to influence a key state.

In 1876, when the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Benjamin Harrison, attempted to invoke “the bloody shirt” worn by Union soldiers, Democrat Daniel Voorhees replied, “We are not fighting the war now against the South. We are fighting the battle of honesty and reform in public office.” The candidate Voorhees backed, James “Blue Jeans” Williams, famous for a frugality and simplicity that included wearing a suit of blue jeans, won. Throughout the post-Civil War era, new issues such as corruption and currency emerged, diverting voters’ attention from Reconstruction issues related to the war.

Scandals in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant focused the nation’s attention on corruption in office, but ethical lapses in politics were a national phenomenon. Since Indiana was so closely divided between parties, Hoosiers knew a great deal about election fraud. Purchasing votes was common but became embarrassing to Republicans when the Indianapolis Democratic newspaper published the Republicans’ instructions on how to buy voters and get them to the polls in the 1888 presidential election. Consequently, Indiana was early to enact certain reforms such as the secret ballot. In 1876, Williams profited from agrarian discontent with Republican insistence on returning to the gold standard. The currency issue was rooted in the Civil War, which the Lincoln administration had attempted to finance with a paper currency, greenbacks. In the post-war period, however, bankers and capitalists wished to return to gold. Ironically, it would be Democrats who held up the paper currency as the “soldiers’ money.” The currency issue remained an important one until the turn of the century.

But the emergence of new issues did not entirely eclipse ones related to the war. Not every Civil War veteran wanted to waste money that could be spent to aid the living on a stone monument in Indianapolis. Ransom E. Hawley believed, “The true monument for Indiana to build to Our Noble Dead is a soldiers and sailors Orphans home worthy of the name.” In 1867, the Indiana General Assembly had created the Indiana Soldiers’ and Seamen’s home in Knightstown, which provided a home for orphans as well. By 1887, the Orphans Home had serious management problems, and legislators provided for a new home for the orphans; at the same time they provided for the monument on the Circle. The Indiana Hospital for the Insane, opened in 1848 in Indianapolis, admitted a number of elderly veterans who were possibly suffering from what a later generation would call post-traumatic stress disorder but who had become too difficult for family members to care for at home. It took until 1895 for the legislature to fund the building of the Indiana State Soldiers’ Home in Lafayette. The human cost of the war was still being paid.

Political Power of Veterans

It may not always have been clear that the depression or mania exhibited by aging soldiers was related to their war service, but veterans’ issues stayed at the forefront of post-Civil War civic life. The 265-foot high monument in Indianapolis was only the climax of the monument-building movement which left many cemeteries and town squares throughout the state with less ostentatious memorials, often a simple shaft or a lone soldier. But the common soldier had more than the symbolic meaning of a statue. Living veterans were voters and often candidates. Benjamin Harrison, elected president in 1888, had been colonel of the 70th Indiana. The assumption behind bloody shirt rhetoric was that veterans formed a coherent bloc who would “vote as they shot.” In a state where elections were so narrowly decided, such a bloc of voters would naturally be targeted by politicians. One study has found that voting for the Republican party in Indiana correlated with membership in the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), or with residence in a soldiers’ home.

The monument in progress during the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, national
encampment in Indianapolis, September 1893. Source: Manuscripts and Rare Books, Indiana State Library.

The GAR formed immediately after the war in Illinois, but it did not gain sizeable membership until the 1880s. While it wielded influence as a political lobby, especially for pensions and the Republican party, it also served as a fraternal lodge for veterans in its local meetings, a charitable society that provided funds for needy members, and conservators of the war’s memory. Not only did the GAR campaign for textbooks that correctly portrayed the war, members participated in Memorial Day celebrations and held reunions. Many of the rituals of post meetings and campfire reunions were drawn from military life. At a Lafayette campfire in 1881, there were drills and dress parades as well as singing around the campfire. The veterans stayed in tents and submitted to the “discipline” of the camp just as they obeyed military discipline as soldiers. Increasingly, GAR members participated in joint Blue and Gray reunions. In 1913, Congress appropriated money for a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg. An estimated five hundred Hoosier veterans, seventy of them Confederates, attended, transported to Pennsylvania at the federal government’s expense. Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston spoke to the Hoosiers, the federal government treated them with ice cream and cigars, and President Woodrow Wilson gave the principal oration. One of the Hoosiers, Frampton Rockhill, enjoyed himself hugely, collecting souvenirs and reveling in the good feeling between Union and Confederate veterans: “The men who fifty years ago faced each other with guns and swords met in Gettysburg with the utmost friendship and common love for one another as comrades and fellow-countrymen.”

Similarly, Memorial Day celebrations, like the reunions, took on a reconciliationist flavor.  Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, had emerged immediately after the war in ceremonies where flowers were placed on the graves of Civil War soldiers. The first Decoration Day occurred when black schoolchildren garlanded the graves of Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina. The GAR formally adopted the ritual in the late 1860s. For generations after the war, Indiana communities would have followed the pattern common throughout the North (and South): a parade to the cemetery, the laying of the flowers often by young women, patriotic speeches and song, a band, and a picnic. Veterans often marched in the parade in uniform. As the years went by, however, they lamented that the picnic increasingly became the main event with less attention to the day’s meaning. Younger people came for the food and frolic and not for solemn remembrance. Still, the veterans were not entirely forgotten. When veterans such as Langsdale wanted a monument in Indiana, they got one in a prominent location— what had been known as governor’s circle—in the center of the state capital.

Source: Manuscripts and Rare Books, Indiana State Library.

Another sign of the veterans’ power was their receipt of federal pensions. The Civil War created a pension system new in American history for its generosity. During the war, Congress had passed a pension bill that allowed for payment in the case of a war-related disability. But as the veterans aged, they argued that the frailties of their advancing years were related to their wartime suffering. Loss of teeth was blamed on scurvy; loss of hearing on malarial poisoning suffered during the war. In 1890, Congress passed an important bill which allowed veterans to get a pension if they had a disability, but the bill did not insist that the disability had to be war-related. Some have argued that the loosening pension standards resulted from the political power of veterans. The Pension Commissioner in 1884 advised speeding up the processing of claims from Indiana and other electorally important states to help the Republicans. It didn’t work in Indiana, which went for Democrat Grover Cleveland. Four years later, and after Cleveland had vetoed the precursor of the 1890 pension act, Republicans “plastered Indiana with promises” of more generous pensions. This time a Republican, Benjamin Harrison, was elected. Harrison signed the 1890 bill. Ironically, in 1888, the gubernatorial race was between Republican Alvin P. Hovey and Democrat Courtland C. Matson. Hovey was a Posey county lawyer and judge and a Civil War general. After the war, he served as minister to Peru and in Congress. Matson was also a Civil War veteran, having risen to the rank of colonel. He had served four terms as a congressman when he ran against Hovey. In fact, Matson had been chairman of the House pensions committee and pushed forward the pension legislation that Cleveland, a president of his party, had vetoed. Hovey beat Matson by only 0.4 percent of the vote.  The results of the 1888 gubernatorial and presidential race in Indiana perhaps indicate that pensions were not determinative of political victory. Nonetheless, by 1910, 28 percent of Indiana’s population were Civil War pensioners (both veterans and widows).

Economic Effects of the War

By the time the state dedicated the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 1902, its cost had risen to over half a million dollars. Perhaps such lavish expenditure seemed reasonable not just because of the belief in the debt owed the Civil War soldiers but because of Indiana’s growing economy in agriculture and industry. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Mississippi River was closed, cutting off trade with the Confederacy but also severing a major artery of Hoosier commerce. Fortunately, the river was reopened during the war, but commerce also shifted away from river transportation routes and increasingly toward railroads. Indianapolis, rapidly becoming a railroad hub and the site of regiments mustering in to the Union Army, doubled in size during the war. The war also brought demand for farm goods, prices rose, and farmers enjoyed good times. Shortages of labor as men were drawn into the army encouraged the adoption of machinery, and paper money—the greenbacks—allowed farmers to pay down debt and make improvements on their land. Corn and hogs remained the agricultural staples, but the war stimulated demand for cattle, which—along with wheat—increasingly became important to the state’s economy.

Indiana remained a rural, agricultural state, but the Civil War stimulated demand for manufactured goods that translated into post-war industrial growth. Wartime and post-war industries included food processing, such as milling grain, distilling it into alcohol, and meatpacking; building of wagons, buggies, farm machinery, and hardware. Demand from the railroads for fuel meant increased coal mining in western Indiana. Manufacturing shifted away from river towns such as Madison, in Jefferson County, toward Indianapolis. As reflected by Indiana’s relatively low immigrant population, compared to other Midwestern states, the overwhelming majority of workers in industry were native born. They worked twelve-hour days, even though wages increased sharply during the Civil War and stayed high until the depression that began in 1873. Labor’s strength during the war caused some of the craft unions that existed to strike for higher wages and workers to demand an eight-hour day. A more organized and active union movement would emerge with the growth of industry from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century, but the Civil War had laid the groundwork for industry’s emergence.

Source: Indianapolis Daily Gazette, April 26, 1864.

Women’s Roles and Rights

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument showed women sending men off to war. The labor shortage created by the Civil War drew women into unfamiliar roles. Women carried on businesses and farms, took jobs outside their homes to support their families, and raised money and supplies for the troops. Some even saw up close the devastation of battle. An estimated 250 Hoosier women worked as nurses in hospitals or military camps both in Indiana and near the armies in the South. Although nursing had been considered inappropriate for women—it was too physically demanding and exposed genteel women to the naked bodies of unfamiliar men—it could be seen as an extension of woman’s traditional role as caretaker of the family’s sick. In fact, many women went to army camps in order to nurse husbands or sons.

Woman’s rights activists hoped that the broadened definition of black rights that emerged from the war would be applied to women. The Indiana Woman’s Suffrage Convention meeting in Indianapolis in 1869 resolved that Congress “should not forget the women of the country, who are surely as competent to use that power [the vote] judiciously as those who have so recently been in the degradation of chattel slavery.” Women deserved the suffrage both because of natural rights—“men and women have been endowed by the Creator with the same mental and moral powers”—and because of woman’s “refining influence,” her special nature that had once been used to justify her confinement to the domestic sphere and that was increasingly being used to justify leaving it. The convention did not confine itself to the suffrage but also to a woman’s right to own her own property and keep her wages, to the problem of abuse, and to the fact that woman’s “refining influence” could be used to enact a law prohibiting alcohol.

In 1871, women appeared before the state legislature to ask for political rights. The Indiana Senate rejected an amendment by 27 to 20 votes.  Two years later, Democrats in the legislature defeated amendments for woman suffrage and prohibition. The liquor industry, which had as much reason to fear women voters as the temperance forces to welcome them, opposed both amendments.In 1881, a resolution to remove the word “male” from the qualifications for voters passed both houses of the Indiana legislature. But in order for an amendment to be made to the state constitution, a separately elected legislature had to pass the resolution again before it could be ratified by voters in an election. In the next session in 1883, the House passed the resolution, but the Senate did not vote, and it died. The woman suffrage movement lapsed in Indiana until World War I. Even then, Indiana did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote until after it had been added to the United States Constitution, effective January 16, 1920.

Changes for African Americans

While the Civil War did not bring transformative change for women, it certainly transformed the role of African Americans in the state and nation. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument with its figure of the liberated slave captured only one aspect of those changes. Indiana had been a black law state, a state which prohibited intermarriage, black suffrage, black testimony against whites in court, and integrated education. The 1851 state Constitution prohibited African Americans from migrating to the state. Many Hoosiers had no desire to end white supremacy. They feared that the changes brought by the war—emancipation and increasing black rights—would erode that supremacy. Many Hoosiers expected that emancipated slaves would flood north of the Ohio River. In fact, the war did increase Indiana’s black population from 11,428 in 1860 to 57,505 in 1900. In 1866, the Indiana Supreme Court declared the black exclusion provision of the state Constitution, Article 13, unconstitutional.The Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which freed the slaves, made them citizens, and gave black men the vote were accepted as having nullified Indiana’s black laws, but those laws were not taken off the books until 1881.

Excerpt from a letter from Silas Shucraft, a black Hoosier, published in the Republican Indianapolis Journal, June 25, 1869.

In particular, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which expanded the suffrage, was controversial in Indiana. The Indianapolis Journal, the Republican newspaper, matter-of-factly insisted that it made sense for “decent, sensible and honest negroes” to have the same suffrage rights as “an ignorant, filthy, rascally white” Democrat. A black Hoosier, Silas Shucraft, wrote an eloquent treatise on the Fifteenth Amendment, which was published in the Indianapolis Journal in June 1869. He noted “the great disadvantages incident to servitude,” but insisted that the freedmen “show the evidences of capability and adaptability to become intelligent citizens of the republic” as immigrants had. Enfranchising African Americans, Shucraft argued, would not damage “the honor, dignity, and permanency of the American Union.” But Democrats called the amendment “odious,” insisting that African Americans were too “ignorant and debased” to have the vote and that Republicans were putting blacks above whites.

To prevent consideration of the Fifteenth Amendment in the 1869 Indiana legislature, seventeen senators and thirty-seven representatives (all Democrats) resigned their seats. The mass resignations broke the quorum and necessitated calling special elections to fill the empty seats. The Democrats were promptly re-elected to a special session in April 1869. Again, the Democrats determined to resign and break the quorum. But Oliver P. Morton, now a United States senator, intervened. Home from Washington, Morton re-interpreted the rules—based on an Act of Congress about the election of U.S. Senators—so that a quorum equaled two-thirds of those members who had not resigned, rather than two-thirds of the total house membership. The General Assembly then ratified the Fifteenth Amendment over Democratic protests. In 1870, the Democrats gained control of the Indiana General Assembly for the first time since 1862 and swept the state offices, partly on the basis of the amendment’s unpopularity in Indiana.

As Reconstruction came to its bloody end in the South, southern freedmen looked northward for a better life. Many from the Deep South moved to Kansas, famous for its association with pre-war abolitionism. But a lesser known migration came from several North Carolina counties to Indiana. Indiana Republicans, including George Langsdale as editor of the Greencastle Banner, aided but did not initiate the movement. Democrats charged that Hoosier Republicans were importing voters, and a congressional committee chaired by Indiana Senator Daniel Voorhees investigated what historians call the Exoduster movement. The majority Democrats on the committee concluded that blacks were not facing ill treatment in the South. Nonetheless, the testimony revealed a pattern of violent disfranchisement and unfair labor practices that southern freedmen said had convinced them they could no longer live in the South.

In Indiana, the North Carolinians often found access to good schools for their children, churches for the black community, equality before the law, and opportunities as farm laborers and domestic servants. Many of the Exodusters arrived poor and ill equipped for cold weather. They received help from the Indianapolis black community and blacks and friendly whites such as Langsdale in other towns in the state. Many of the Exodusters became discouraged and went back to North Carolina—the weather was colder, work scarcer, and whites less friendly than they had expected. But many stayed, often settling in Indianapolis where more and better-paying work was available. They not only contributed to the growth in Indiana’s black population but, with their stories of life under slavery, reminded Hoosiers of the Civil War’s emancipationist meaning.

The Civil War did not, of course, end racism. African Americans in Indiana occasionally faced violence. In Evansville in 1903, a mob threatened the black community for about a week. Many local blacks fled the town. The graphic 1930 photograph of two black men, Tom Shipp and Abe Smith, hanging from a tree in Marion, Indiana with a crowd of whites below them has become an iconic lynching image often mislabeled as happening in a southern state. Although towns no longer post signs warning blacks not to be in them after sundown, residential segregation still exists and African Americans who move into white communities often face harassment.

A Contested Legacy

Thousands of people gathered May 15, 1902 for the dedication of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the Circle; Lew Wallace, Civil War General and famous author, was presiding officer. Source: Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society, P0130.

The legacy of the Civil War is still a contested one in Indiana. Opened in 1962, Muncie Southside High School dubbed itself the Rebels and adopted the Confederate flag as an emblem. This was not unusual for suburban high schools being founded on the south sides of towns. School populations were growing because of the baby boom, and they reached high school age during the Civil War centennial. Despite the Civil Rights movement, the centennial emphasized military glory over race, and adoption of the Confederate flag still seemed an innocent choice to many northern whites. Not so to black parents who sued the school. In recent years, the school has downplayed the flag, but alumni still possess Southside coats with a Confederate flag lining. One occasionally sees Confederate flags flying at homes and on vehicles throughout the state. Whatever the sentiments that motivate the flag flying, the men who built the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument would be dismayed to find their Unionist memorial compromised by signs of sympathy for a Confederate past.


Fadely, James Philip. "The Veteran and the Memorial: George J. Langsdale and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument." Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2006), 27-35.

McConnell, Stuart Charles. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Madison, James H. The Indiana Way: A State History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press and Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1986.

Taylor, Robert M., Jr., ed. The State of Indiana History 2000: Papers Presented at the Indiana Historical Society’s Grand Opening. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2001.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau and Indiana Historical Society, 1965.