"Elegantly written and well-researched . . . Marten’s outstanding biography of this fascinating figure demonstrates that Tanner was more than symbolic of Gilded Age corruption. . . . Understanding that some Americans seemed contemptuous of one of the most iconic generations of American veterans, including an individual who suffered catastrophic injuries during his service, is critical to understanding the challenges facing American veterans of all eras and is an extremely valuable lesson of Marten’s study."
—Barbara A. Gannon, Journal of American History
"History enthusiasts whose interests have been confined to the Civil War years would do well to read this short book, for it shows how the conflict continued to affect America—and especially her veterans—for decades after the last shot was fired."
“Marten gives us a well-written, quite detailed account of Tanner’s life and work. He offers many insights into contemporary society, particularly from the perspective of a man with disabilities, at a time when there was almost no awareness of the problems of the handicapped. . . . A volume in UGP’s series “Uncivil Wars,” America’s Corporal is an excellent book, not only because it’s about a man who is today largely forgotten, but because of its look at a the problems of disabled veterans in the post-Civil War era.”
—A. A. Nofi, The New York Military Affairs Symposium Review
“Drawing on a variety of primary sources, Marten, who is chair of the history department at Marquette University, brings Tanner’s life and character into focus and shows what it meant to be a veteran in an era that at first worshipped the saviors of the Union but then found ambiguity in their political power and insistence on collecting ever-larger pensions.”
"[An] outstanding study of life after battle. . . . Mr. Marten focuses on James Tanner, a double amputee who vaulted into prominence when he was drafted on the spot to take the testimony of the witnesses to Lincoln’s assassination and who eventually became a spokesman for disabled veterans."
—Allen Guelzo, Wall Street Journal
"[Marten] has offered a strong portrayal not only of a man, but also the Gilded Age. . . . The result is a nuanced portrait of a man who was certainly committed to serving the veteran community of his day . . . Consequently, [the author] has helped illuminate late nineteenth-century America."
—T. J. Vaughan, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
“America’s Corporal is a fascinating look at one of the Union army’s most remarkable veterans. Following Tanner from his enlistment as an enthusiastic seventeen-year-old, through his debilitating double-amputation, and on to his rise as a prominent figure in veterans’ affairs, James Marten chronicles a story at once extraordinary and exceedingly representative of the Civil War generation. Situating Tanner within the worlds of wartime medicine, veteran culture, urban life, and Gilded Age politics, Marten once again offers a beautifully written and compelling portrait of late nineteenth-century America.”
—Caroline E. Janney, author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation
James Tanner may be the most famous person in nineteenth-century America that no one has heard of. During his service in the Union army, he lost the lower third of both his legs and afterward had to reinvent himself. After a brush with fame as the stenographer taking down testimony a few feet away from the dying President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Tanner eventually became one of the best-known men in Gilded Age America. He was a highly placed Republican operative, a popular Grand Army of the Republic speaker, an entrepreneur, and a celebrity. He earned fame and at least temporary fortune as “Corporal Tanner,” but most Americans would simply have known him as “The Corporal.” Yet virtually no one—not even historians of the Civil War and Gilded Age—knows him today.
America’s Corporal rectifies this startling gap in our understanding of the decades that followed the Civil War. Drawing on a variety of primary sources including memoirs, lectures, newspapers, pension files, veterans’ organization records, poetry, and political cartoons, James Marten brings Tanner’s life and character into focus and shows what it meant to be a veteran— especially a disabled veteran—in an era that at first worshipped the saviors of the Union but then found ambiguity in their political power and insistence on collecting ever-larger pensions. This biography serves as an examination of the dynamics of disability, the culture and politics of the Gilded Age, and the aftereffects of the Civil War, including the philosophical and psychological changes that it prompted.
The book explores the sometimes corrupt, often gridlocked, but always entertaining politics of the era, from Tanner’s days as tax collector in Brooklyn through his short-lived appointment as commissioner of pensions (one of the biggest jobs in the federal government of the 1880s). Marten provides a vivid case study of a classic Gilded Age entrepreneur who could never make enough money. America’s Corporal is a reflection on the creation of celebrity—and of its ultimate failure to preserve the memory of a man who represented so many of the experiences and assumptions of the Gilded Age.
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