Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front (review)
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Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front. By J. Matthew Gallman. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 266. $39.95 cloth)

J. Matthew Gallman has spent much of the last twenty years on a mission to uncover the experiences, ideas, and motivations of men and women on the northern home front. Northerners at War suggests the depth—and perhaps more significantly the breadth—of his accomplishment. The eleven essays in this volume take the reader on a vivid and wide-ranging journey not only across the northern home front but through an evolving historical discipline as well. Many of these essays support an argument that Gallman has long put forward—that contrary to what was for many years conventional wisdom, the Civil War was not a powerful agent of change for the North. [End Page 413]

Tracing the path of Gallman's research, the book begins with his work on Philadelphia. Essays on the Sanitary Fairs and civic order argue that antebellum institutions and conventions powerfully shaped the war experience and survived that experience relatively unscathed. In Philadelphia, localism and gender divisions—not centralization and an expanded women's sphere—characterized the fairs that raised money for Union soldiers. It was a police force that had been strengthened in response to antebellum riots that preserved order in the city while riots threatened Cincinnati and Detroit and engulfed New York City. In these essays, we can see the early social history, with its drive to "give voice to the voiceless," at work (p. ix). Subsequent essays reflect the trajectory of the discipline, as Gallman employs the methods of cliometrics, gender and race studies, biography, cultural history, and memory studies to explore the impact of the war on urban life, the economy, gender expectations, and northern values. The variety of angles from which Gallman approaches his material, along with his clever use of evidence, makes for a compelling and engaging read.

The chapters on Anna Dickinson are illustrative. Dickinson was a prominent and outspoken abolitionist orator who burst on the scene in 1862. Only eighteen when the war began, her youth, sex, and oratorical genius captured the imagination of the wartime North and catapulted her to fame. Gallman uses Dickinson's letters to explore the ways in which she negotiated her public and private identities. He studies the public rhetoric that her fame elicited to evaluate her impact on gender norms and mines her 1868 novel What Answer? for evidence of the impact of the war as participants remembered it. He turns to Dickinson's role in the 1872 elections for a meditation on the uses of memory for partisan purposes.

In the longstanding debate over the impact of the Civil War on northern society, Gallman is clearly a minimalist. But one of the strengths of this book is its recognition of historical complexity. Again, Gallman's work on Dickinson is illustrative. In her flagrant transgression of gender norms, the fiery orator posited an alternative model of womanhood. Struggling to make sense of Dickinson, political leaders [End Page 414] and the northern press appear to have settled on an explanation that carefully protected gender categories: for better or worse, Dickinson was simply an aberration. But if northern elites would not recognize the model Dickinson offered women, others would. Pointing to the voluminous mail Dickinson received from supporters, Gallman writes, "For dozens of friends, hundreds of acquaintances, and thousands of anonymous admirers—Dickinson's wartime career served as evidence of what women could, given the opportunity, achieve in the public arena" (p.165). Years later, as Horace Greeley and Ulysses S. Grant vied for her support in their 1872 presidential campaigns, that impact was clear: "That both camps battled for endorsements from leading women … was an acknowledgement of women's expanded public role. That increased political voice was in no small part a further legacy of the Civil War and particularly of Dickinson's celebrated role in wartime politics" (p. 228).

The essays in Northerners at War offer sophisticated, insightful, and provocative analyses of their varied subjects. Taken as a whole, these essays tell the story of an ever-changing historical profession...