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The War Was You and Me:
Civilians in the American Civil War
Edited by Joan E. Cashin

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2002, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

Editor's Introduction


WALT WHITMAN, a civilian who worked as a U.S. army nurse during the Civil War, wrote about the mighty conflict for the rest of his life, trying repeatedly in poetry and prose to fathom its impact on the country. Soon after the war closed, he penned the lines that form this book's epigraph while visiting Lake Ontario, far from the scene of any battle. The quote is truly Whitmanesque in its acuity. He understood that the war involved all of the American people in its historic sweep, in the suffering and hardship it caused, and the solemn issues at stake, and he anticipated the furious debate over how it would be remembered. The scholarship on the war is enormous, larger than any other period in the nation's history, and the literature includes many excellent titles on military history, biographies of famous politicians and generals, and work on soldiers in the ranks.1 Some outstanding scholarship has appeared on what might be broadly described as the war's social history, regarding women's lives during the conflict, internal dissent within the South, and the Federal army's occupation of the Confederacy, while some biographies of prominent reformers include chapters on the war, and several community studies focus on the conflict.2 But in the last dozen years only two volumes of essays have concentrated on civilians. In a collection edited by Maris Vinoskis in 1990, the authors skillfully examine the war's impact on the demography of the American population, the economy, and life in Northern communities. In a book edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber in 1992, those authors analyze with equal skill how gender relations changed throughout the country. Both collections are filled with path-breaking work, highly accomplished essays that illuminate much about the civilian experience.3

Despite the multiple contributions of these books, there is still a great deal to discover about civilian life. Noncombatants constituted the majority of the nation's population, including the male population, and they provided much of the material supplies, financial resources, and information necessary to fight the war. Civilians also played a central role in the public discourse over the war's direction and larger meaning, debating each other and the men in the field. Furthermore, the unpredictable pace of battle sometimes blurred the line between soldier and noncombatant, as the fighting rolled across the Southern landscape (and in a few instances into the border states and the North) and uprooted thousands of people of both races. We do not know nearly enough about the people at the heart of the struggle, African Americans, most of whom were of course civilians.4

This scholarly neglect is all the more striking in light of the inherent drama of the civilian experience. Southerners black and white lived through the breakup of their basic social and economic institutions, while Northerners of both races witnessed the reorganization of much of civilian society to fight the war, even as citizens of the border regions grappled with elemental questions of loyalty that reached into the family itself. The war inspired a host of innovations in American culture, in everything from public oratory to mourning customs. These transformations worked themselves out in the destinies of thousands of civilians in ways that scholars have scarcely begun to explore.

Fortunately for historians, the archives are bursting with documentation on this subject. Many civilians were self-conscious about the war's significance and produced a tidal wave of letters and journals, even as soldiers described numerous interactions with civilians in their writings, while hundreds of people left memoirs, published and unpublished, after the war ended. The national, state, and local governments created a tremendous body of records on civilians, including but not restricted to the Southern Claims Commission, the Freedmen's Bureau Papers, pension files, the Dun and Bradstreet credit reports, the veterans' census of 1890, and the WPA Narratives. Scholars have yet to exploit fully the nation's newspapers or the massive photographic record for what they reveal civilians.5

The essays in this book, which are all based on original research, add abundantly to our knowledge of the war. They treat men, women, and children, blacks and whites, from working-class, middle-class, and affluent backgrounds; some articles examine specific events, some discuss particular communities, and others take a biographical approach. They do not concern the "home front" per se, since we focus not on one geographic place but on civilians all over the country, from California to New England. Two essays provide fresh perspectives on the war's premiere events, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Lincoln assassination, one by describing free blacks who were kidnapped into slavery during the famous battle, and the other by raising new questions about Mary Surratt's guilt. Despite the impressive variety of sources, methods, and arguments, some principal themes emerge.


Family and Community The war threatened social bonds in the North and the border states, as well as the South. These disruptions are visible in the community resistance to the draft, bolstered by political opposition, in the North; in the white families from border regions who were divided by the war, literally father against son; in one white family's blunt exchanges about their son's service with a black army unit; and in the speed with which the war politicized teenagers and children, including very young children, in a border state. This conflict pitted siblings and generations against each other, and before it was done shook the family, the fundamental social unit, to its core.


Gender The war unsettled, undermined, and sometimes destroyed traditional gender roles, in all regions, forcing people to reconsider their assumptions about appropriate behavior for men and women of both races. This is manifest in disputes between female teachers and army officials regarding the treatment of newly emancipated Southern blacks; the phenomenal career of the first professional fund-raiser in American history, a white woman affiliated with the Republican Party; and the desperate struggles of Confederate widows in the wartime and postwar South. Some people welcomed these changes, some deplored them, and many may have perceived them as another example of the war's unintended consequences.


Culture In the North, the South, and the border states, the conflict changed the way people experienced the aesthetic, in the many new sounds generated by the war--the sounds of battle, preparation for battle, and the aftermath of battle--and the plethora of new things to read. At the same time, the war recast familiar cultural symbols, such as the images of home, idealized but all the more hypnotic, that figured in the minds of Union soldiers. After Appomattox, the war echoed in American culture for decades as civilians engaged in a fierce contest over what should be honored and what should be forgotten about the war narrative.


Race Not everything changed during the war, however, and the ambivalence among white Northerners about abolition, and the countrywide opposition to racial equality, foreshadow the failure of Reconstruction. Warning signs abounded in the uneasy relations between escaped slaves and Yankee soldiers in Mississippi and elsewhere; in the white men who deserted the Union army rather than fight for Emancipation, and the white civilians who assisted them; and the great difficulty black Union veterans had in obtaining national recognition for their part in the war effort, recognition that was many years in the coming.

Family, community, gender, culture, and race represent important areas of historical inquiry, and as these fields evolve, we may pursue yet other inquiries. What about the ethnic Americans, the Irish and the Germans who arrived on these shores in the 1840s and 1850s? In both the Union and the Confederacy, they were suspected as disloyal, yet we do not know very much about their views of the fight. And what about émigrés from central and eastern Europe, such as the young Joseph Pulitzer, who arrived in the Union during the war and decided to join up? Second, let us ponder how the war modified the nature of fame, making individuals such as Frederick Douglass, already well known among activists, recognizable to a mass audience. What did celebrities who had hitherto lived in obscurity, such as Belle Boyd, make of their new-found fame? How do we account for the seemingly bottomless public demand for images of and information about these personalities? Finally, there is the matter of relations between veterans and civilians after the war. In many households, civilians could not always comprehend what soldiers had been through, and ex-soldiers could not grasp completely how much life at home had been transformed. How did civilian society change after 1865, when thousands of veterans came home?6

As Whitman suggested long ago, the Civil War changed almost every civilian who lived through it. This story, spellbinding in its drama and staggering in its complexity, has just begun to be told.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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