Joan E. Cashin, ed. The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. viii + 397 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-09174-7; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-09173-0.
Reviewed by Lyde Cullen Sizer (Department of History, Sarah Lawrence College)
Published on H-CivWar (June, 2003)
The Story is Messier Than That
The Story is Messier Than That
"Emancipation upped the volume in the South," Mark Smith writes in "Of Bells, Booms, Sounds, and Silences: Listening to the Civil War South" (p. 27), one of fifteen essays in The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War, edited by Joan E. Cashin. This new collection is studded with such heretofore unexpected, unnoticed, and yet deeply revealing minutiae of the Civil War home-front. Smith's article, for instance, draws out the "soundscape" of the war: the hum of industrial noise; cannon booms and blasts; the muttering and raging of Confederate plantation owners (noted carefully by their slaves); the gradual silencing of the bells in the South (p. 27). Sound inspired and eroded resistance, signaled joy and warning, translated grief in multiple and complicated ways, all of which add to the story of the war. Silenced bells alone told multiple stories; for example, Southern communities donated many of these "soundmarks" to be melted and remade into guns. Yet even those bells that were protected for the ongoing use of the community were rung less frequently as the war wore on. "Sounds of God, of markets, of place were now muted and alien," Smith explains, "and the confident ringing of bells to announce secession was now replaced by meek silence" (p. 23).
Six of the pieces in The War Was You and Me concern the South, six more the North, and the final three address border regions. In each case the authors consider new archival material or revisit old debates with a new vantage point. The collection as a whole is remarkably consistent: these are excellent pieces of scholarship, none of which feel derivative, or a lesser part of an author's larger work.
The War Was You and Me joins a swelling chorus of new work on the home-front, north and south. This sub-discipline, however, tends to go deeply into one area--gender roles, for example, or community studies--rather than range broadly across region and theme. As a result this book will be enormously useful as a companion to a narrative history, since it teases out the ambiguities, the dissonances, and the consequences of the more familiar story of the conflict across a range of venues.
In her own contribution to the volume, "Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance," Cashin posits that the consensus many historians have come to about "the unanimity of federal soldiers in the ranks and the strong support they received at home" may be mistaken. "The story is messier than that," she argues (p. 263). Deserters in the North were far more numerous--and far better supported--than has been previously understood. Civilians not only encouraged kin to desert, and hid and supported them when they did, but also refused to turn in neighbors or acquaintances. Loyalty to family and community could thus trump national commitment. This finding is echoed in other articles, as well. In "We Are Coming, Father Abraham--Eventually: The Problem of Northern Nationalism in the Pennsylvania Recruiting Drives of 1862," William Blair uncovers the complicated mix of local loyalty, partisan maneuvering, and administrative incompetence that can explain Pennsylvania's less than expeditious organizing of volunteers.
Similar messiness disturbs other well-established truisms about the conflict. In "Slaves, Emancipation, and the Powers of War: Views from the Natchez District of Mississippi," Anthony Kaye finds that former slaves did not have one agreed-upon moment of emancipation. If some felt free after hearing of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, others saw power--and thus freedom--in "fundamentally personal terms" (p. 61). They understood slavery to have ended with the siege of Vicksburg, when their owners' ability to control events was viscerally uprooted, or with the end of the war, when even tenuously reasserted control ended. Kaye notes that while post-structuralist scholars emphasize continuity over change in the transition from slavery to freedom, this was not how African Americans understood their history. If former slaves disagreed on the timing of their freedom, they concurred in deeming it a dramatic and welcome change.
Several of the articles here also consider questions of memory, analyzing the ways that Civil War history has gotten distorted through the competing agendas of participants, their heirs, and their historians. In "Race, Memory, and Masculinity: Black Veterans Recall the Civil War," W. Fitzhugh Brundage argues that black veterans worked hard to keep their achievements during the Civil War central to national memory for a number of reasons, their sense of pride and masculinity among them. "The struggle to define particular memories about the Civil War as authoritative and others as illegitimate fictions was a contest over who exercised the power to make some historical narratives possible and to silence others," Brundage finds (p. 137). The crafters of the histories were very self-conscious, then as now, and the erosion of the memory of black soldiers--their absence from public and sacred spaces, and the dearth of physical testaments to their efforts--was deliberate.
Margaret Creighton's "Living on the Fault Line: African American Civilians and the Gettysburg Campaign" is one of the most compelling articles in the collection. Creighton redraws the emotional map of the battle of Gettysburg, offering a new memory and understanding of that crucial turning point. She notes that at the center of the Union line, close by the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, there was a modest white farmhouse owned by a free black family. Telling the story of Gettysburg from its vantage point opens a fresh perspective this well-known saga, exposing the obscured fears and costs of battle to civilians. It is, Creighton avers, "a story of consequence" (p. 209). Creighton also draws out the story of free blacks in Gettysburg and in nearby occupied towns and villages of the North. As the news of the advancing Confederates spread, the African American population felt an additional fear to that experienced by whites: Confederates could and did round up and remand into slavery all African Americans they could find, including the long-free, women, and children. A young white mother recorded in her diary the anguish of another mother, who pled with her captors for the chance to see her children just once more, "but all the sympathy she received from him was a rough 'March Along'" (p. 213). Anguished and frightened African Americans hid under porches, in attics and cellars, one in a church belfry. Most, including the family of Abraham Brian, who lived in the aforementioned farmhouse, fled. Ironically, this story has been lost to history not only because of the indifference or hostility of whites, but also because it was not a story African Americans wanted to tell, either. Not surprisingly, their efforts were in relating stories of "strength and promise, not episodes of suffering" (p. 229). Both need telling, however, to restore the multiple meanings and experiences of the bloody conflict at Gettysburg.
The messiness of the past is drawn out in other ways, too. The fierce and seemingly intransigent racism of an Ohio family changed significantly over the war years, as historian Joseph Glatthaar discovers in "Duty, Race, and Party: The Evans Family of Ohio." The war experiences of the oldest son, Sam, including his stint as an officer of a black regiment, convinced him to rethink the assumptions of a lifetime. Relations between Evans and his father were both strained and strengthened by the war, Glatthaar finds. So does Amy Murrell in her "Union Father, Rebel Son: Families and the Question of Civil War Loyalty," where she explores what happened when sons defied paternal political authority to join the Confederacy. The experiences of such families were mixed, with some families never recovering; yet Murrell argues that familial love usually survived even the most violent stresses.
A few of these articles discuss figures who have long been in the public eye, and yet they too offer ways in which to see their stories as messier than typically reported. In "An Inspiration to Work: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Public Orator," J. Matthew Gallman illuminates the multiple effects Dickinson's work had on her audiences, from established political leaders to schoolgirls. While Dickinson is familiar to any rendering of the lecture circuit of the mid-nineteenth century, Gallman adds depth and richness to her story, demonstrating again the significant political work undertaken by women well before they won the vote. In a lively and careful retelling of the story of Mary Surratt and the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, Elizabeth Leonard analyzes the reasoning behind her execution, given the dearth of hard evidence for her guilt (or, for that matter, her innocence). Ironically, Leonard argues, in the end Surratt's sex may have killed her; a vengeful and grieving North wanted Southern white women punished.
This is a dense and rich tapestry of Civil War civilian life, one that will enrich reigning narratives in the field. Readable, rigorously researched, with ample and diverse articles, this is a must for Civil War scholars and buffs alike.
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Lyde Cullen Sizer. Review of Cashin, Joan E., ed., The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War.
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