- The Southern Home Front
Most of us in the academic profession have had the opportunity to roll our eyes at yet another student-authored history paper that inevitably begins with the words: "Webster's Dictionary defines [insert subject of paper here] as. . . ." While I chide them for doing it, it strikes me that historians really ought to follow their students' lead and define their terms more precisely before engaging in academic dialogue. Take for example the common definitions of "home front" given by most online and printed dictionaries. They boil down to, rather simply: "the civilian population of a country at war." In light of this connotation, it appears that historians of the Civil War era are beginning to argue that there was no such thing as a southern home front, and that any sort of easy distinction between military and civilian Civil War participants may not be useful or even valid anymore. A slew of Civil War historians have contended in very recent publications that groups of people (white and black free women, slaves, for example) that have traditionally been considered "civilians" on the southern home front were actually full-fledged combatants.
This is not simply a matter of redefining combat to include any sort of civilian resistance to military authority, nor is it a mere trick of postmodern historical interpretation to construe civilian actions as "weapons of the weak," or symbolic confrontation. Rather, they reveal that people at the time—both the Federal and Confederate governments and military officials of both armies fighting in southern territory—considered many civilians to be combatants and spelled this out in both government and military policy. And, they argue that so too should modern historians. But all of this leaves us with a provocative question: Is there really no way, and no reason, to distinguish between "home front" and "battlefield" in the Civil War South? [End Page 7]