Reviewed by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (University of North Florida)
Published on H-War (December, 2006)
Where the Personal Meets the Political: A Cultural History of the Civil War
Over the last twenty-five years, much of the best writing on the U.S. Civil War has been social history. We now possess detailed community studies of a wide range of Confederate and Union places and compelling explanations of the role of race, class, and gender in complicating the war within each section as well as between them. Despite this considerable accomplishment, important aspects of the war experience continue to elude us. In particular, we have few authentic cultural histories of the war. Amy Murrell Taylor's The Divided Family in Civil War America represents one of the most successful applications of cultural history to the war. Her book substantially advances our understanding of the experience of war for participants and provides a new framework for interpreting the relationships that people maintained with each other and their nations.
"Cultural history," as a description of the analytical approach of Taylor's book is probably too limiting. As her subjects made plain, abstract distinctions (such as those used by scholars to categorize methods of analysis) rarely survive in the storm of war. Taylor's most important contribution is demonstrating how inadequate the traditional distinctions between "private" life and "public" life were for participants in the war. For instance, when pro-secession sons disobeyed their fathers to enlist in Confederate forces, was this an act of rebellion against their parents or their nation? The dilemmas faced by members of divided families resided at the juncture of their private and public worlds, and their experiences demonstrate the impossibility of dividing the two spheres in our historical explanations. The story she tells is really a full history of the war in all its messy complexity.
As the title indicates, Taylor's subjects are those families that contained members who split their national loyalties during the Civil War. Her geographic focus is on the middle of the nation--running from Missouri across Kentucky and Tennessee into Virginia (and, later, West Virginia), Maryland, and Washington, D.C.--where family members often found themselves at odds with each other over the wisdom of slavery, secession, and war. She adopts a generally topical approach, with chapters organized around analyses of how different family relationships (fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and siblings) shaped people's reactions to the conflict, how people maintained contact across national boundaries through the war, and how those relationships and contacts were dramatized in the popular fiction of the war. The book also moves chronologically, showing how conflicts in the early stages of the war evolved into more complicated problems once fighting erupted and concludes with an analysis of the process of reconciliation within divided families.
Taylor's narrative opens with an investigation of the problem of Confederate sons rebelling against Unionist fathers. Both sides in these struggles avoided the complex reality of the situation. Fathers blamed their sons for filial disloyalty. Sons explained their decisions solely as a consequence of ideology and policy. Taylor demonstrates the interconnection of these forces. The underlying problem for fathers and sons revolved around the proper manifestation of, and respect for, authority. Fathers generally expected absolute obedience even as their sons, especially those raised in the heady conflict-ridden years of the 1850s, asserted the autonomy, that they had learned from their fathers, by deciding on their own how to respond to the war.
The conflicts between husbands and wives threatened to unsettle the family even more. Spouses could only disagree about the conflict if women adopted a position contrary to that articulated by their husbands. This expression of political independence was problematic in itself and compounded by the fact that many women disagreed with their spouses. This spousal conflict left many observers wondering whether the war would literally destroy the fabric of society. Taylor's discussion of the awkward ways in which husbands and wives reconciled their conflicting opinions joins the home front and the battlefront more tightly and holistically than almost any existing study. In describing the background within which spouses, children, and siblings acted, Taylor characterizes mid-nineteenth-century families as awkwardly balanced between patriarchy and affection. She shows the tension that existed as a result of this transition--husbands wanted wifely obedience but also debated with their wives--and how that state of tension shaped the ways that people understood the conflict. Social and cultural historians of the family should take note that they ignore the Civil War at their own peril. The war came at a crucial moment in the development of the affectionate family and the experience of war shaped how people understood that new institution.
In addition to the internal disputes that roiled divided families, members of divided communities also had to contend with the suspicion, and sometimes hostility, of their respective governments. Taylor explores the challenges of visiting loved ones who held conflicting allegiances. This was an especially vexing issue for the parents of wounded soldiers (mostly northern families hoping to nurse or retrieve Confederate sons), who had to receive official permission in order to cross borders. The difficulty of communicating (usually via mail but sometimes through advertisements placed in newspapers) generated the same difficulties. All of these activities raised problems for the respective national governments, which sought to enforce loyalty and stamp out dissent or sympathy of any kind for the enemy. The Union was more aggressive in its censorship of the mails, although Taylor points out that this may have been a consequence of the Confederacy's manpower shortage. Regardless, she establishes that both the Confederacy and the Union viewed civilian and soldier behavior in a binary format: loyalists gave no succor to the enemy, branding as "disloyal" anyone who interacted with the opposing side except on the battlefield. The people who were in these relationships, however, operated from a much more fluid perspective. Southerners who had loved ones fighting for the Union believed they could hope for the safety of their kin without abdicating their support for the Confederacy, and vice versa. In this instance, as in many others, Taylor's study shows a more complicated war than the one we ordinarily envision, with political loyalty configured partly on the basis of love and affection and familial bonds tested by people's ideological convictions.
Divided Families has numerous strengths beyond those mentioned already. Taylor offers nuanced readings of the fictional literature of both sections to demonstrate how people worked out their family conflicts, both during and after the war. She also shows how the conflicts within the war grew out of the ideological context of the prewar period, as in her discussion of the problem of "sincerity" that consumed antebellum Americans concerned about fraud and artifice in the increasingly anonymous cities of the 1840s and 1850s, and frightened war participants who had to dissemble or disguise their true national loyalties for the sake of their families. Throughout the volume, the prose is consistently readable and engaging. Her analytical passages are succinct and persuasive. The Divided Family in Civil War America is a signal addition to the literature on the war and a striking example of the gains in understanding that come from approaching old questions from new angles. If Taylor's study is indicative of what lies ahead in terms of literature on the Civil War, the next quarter-century should be as rewarding as the last.
. Important exceptions to this generalization include such recent studies as Christopher Paul Anderson, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002); Stephen W. Berry, All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Peter S. Carmichael, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
. Here, Taylor follows the lead of recent studies of marriage that demonstrate the fluid state of affairs in much of mid-century America. See, for example, Anja Jabour, Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
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Aaron Sheehan-Dean. Review of Taylor, Amy Murrell, The Divided Family in Civil War America.
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