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Civil War history of the term ‘red tape’ provides stark idea of costs

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton. File photo

By Jim Kempton

The expression “red tape” describes the annoying way that bureaucracy prevents things from getting done. I’ve often wondered where the term comes from. I found the answer while reading Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book titled Team of Rivals.

The common usage of the phrase by Americans today seems to have stemmed from the American Civil War, the most costly tragedy of our nation’s history. It is estimated that well over 600,000 deaths occurred during the four-year period, between the shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861 and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

Combatants were killed in appalling numbers and often in impossibly rough terrain. In the nearly continuous campaigns, with conflict sweeping from Pennsylvania to Georgia, records were difficult to keep. At now-obscure locations like Shiloh, Antietam, Chickamauga, Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, as many as 20,000 troops were killed, wounded or missing within a three-day span. Because many of the major engagements left a carpet of corpses littering the battlefield, they were often buried where they lay or tossed into mass graves near the battle sites.

Tens of thousands of soldiers were never identified during the battles they died in. Thousands more were captured, interred in prison camps and frequently died without any notification to next of kin.

Survivors did their best to find any belongings or keepsakes that might help to identify their fallen comrades to their families back home. Often the personal possessions these soldiers were carrying were collected, tossed into a box and sent back to Washington to be dealt with. The documents were then bound together with a narrow red ribbon before being shipped off to huge warehouse stations where they were organized as best they could.

Families of missing soldiers would travel to Washington by the trainload to try and find anything about the place their loved ones had fallen and how they had died. Many just wanted their sons’ or husbands’ last possessions to bring home for a proper memorial service.

Families would provide names and addresses while the clerks would rummage through acres of boxes. When they found what they thought might be the right one, they had to cut and remove the ribbons before reading the documents that would clearly identify the deceased men.

The process became known as “cutting the red tape.”

Overwhelmed by the sheer volume, confused by often sketchy information and badgered by impatient, grieving relatives, finding the right box of belongings became a laborious, painstaking and long-suffering process. Frustrated families railed against the seemingly endless, time-consuming bureaucratic exercise that delayed getting the job done. Years went by before some parents and wives finally were able to find out what happened to their sons or husbands. There was almost nothing that cold be done.

In the end, too many soldiers had died. There was just too much red tape.

Jim Kempton is a Civil War history buff and San Clemente local of 35 years. He is a great fan of the Internet, which has been an amazing assistance to cutting red tape.

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comments (1)

  • ‘red tape’ is a right wing dog whistle to cut government, as if that is the solution to your problems. It isn’t, it is meant to distract you, to keep you from using your heads. If something doesn’t work, fix it. Use government to make things better, as it has done and as it is designed to do. I know that will disappoint those who seek to distract from the real problems, but I hope the next election cycle will dispose of those who obstruct with this nonsense.

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