Rally 'round the flag

January 25, 2003

THE NEWS that the last remaining widow of a Union soldier had died - at her home in Blaine, Tenn., on Jan. 17 - was one of those how-can-that-be surprises that takes a moment to plug into the world as we know it. After all, we're living in an era when veterans of World War II are becoming scarcer and even Vietnam vets are getting well accustomed to bifocals. And suddenly we're talking about the Civil War? Still?

But yes, it was true. Gertrude Janeway was only 18 when she married, and her bridegroom was 81 back then, but that was 75 years ago and he was a genuine Union veteran. So she, in her own way, had been a living link to the army of Ulysses S. Grant, right into the third year of the presidency of George W. Bush.

Her obituary mentioned that up until her death she had been receiving a veteran's benefit, as a widow, of $70 a month.

That brought to mind two quick questions: Does the Department of Veterans Affairs (once known as the Pension Bureau) still have a great dusty Civil War ledger somewhere, with names inked in, in beautiful penmanship? And with Mrs. Janeway's death, can the United States now officially close the books on the Civil War?

The answer to the first question is yes, but the ledger is in a VA museum in New York and Mrs. Janeway's benefit had long since been entered into the agency's computer system.

As for the second question, says Willie Alexander, "The answer is no."

Mr. Alexander works in the public relations department of the VA, and he reports that there are seven children of Civil War soldiers who still receive "death pensions" based on their own disabilities. This is money the government provides them because of the service their fathers rendered to preserve the Union. Well, no, that's not quite right - because, in 1958, by act of Congress, VA benefits were extended to include Confederate veterans and their families for the first time. (There was one recognized Confederate veteran still alive in 1958; his widow, who is 95, lives today in Elba, Ala., but makes do with a pension from the state and not the federal government.)

For 45 years, in other words, the government has officially treated the rebels of the South as its own. And pensions aren't the only means by which the United States still tries to bind up the wounds of that long-ago war. Last year the VA installed or replaced 4,071 headstones on the graves of soldiers from both sides, in private as well as national cemeteries - at a cost of $292,449.

The dead are impartially honored, forgiven, memorialized. It's among the living that the war is still being fought.

Take Georgia, as an example. For the first time since the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, Georgia has elected a Republican governor, Sonny Perdue. In his campaign last fall he called for a referendum on the question of restoring the old state flag - the one that flew from 1956 to 2001, and most of which was devoted to a reproduction of the Confederate battle flag.

They loved that in the rural parts of the state, and gave him their votes (even if he did belong to same political party as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who made his "March to the Sea" right across Georgia in 1864). But now Mr. Perdue's in a bind. Trent Lott demonstrated to the GOP the dangers of race politics - and the Confederacy did have that little thing about blacks. A referendum might bring out hordes of Democrats. The governor has started trying to cast his idea as a way to start the "healing." His supporters don't want healing - they want their flag back.

America isn't done with the Civil War. The country is still paying for it - literally, as well as emotionally. It colors our politics and it still touches lives.

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