A Generation at War: The Civil War Era in a Northern Community (review)
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A Generation at War: The Civil War Era in a Northern Community. By Nicole Etcheson. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2011. Pp. x, 371. $39.95 cloth)

The book under review considers the impact of the Civil War on the home front and in particular on Putnam County, Indiana. Examining the war from a communal perspective has deep roots in Civil War scholarship and one of the most famous of these studies was done by Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (2003). Ayers compared two counties: one in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia. Mathew Gallman and Phillip Paludan provided more general studies of the northern home front in The North Fights the Civil War: The Home Front (1994) and “A People’s Contest”: The Union and the Civil War, 1861–1865 (1996), respectively. Nicole Etcheson continues a home-front focus with a microhistory of Putnam County in which she considers class, gender, and race as influenced by the national events before, during, and after the war.

A Generation at War is a multifaceted study that builds on Civil War political and social history by expanding the examination to include [End Page 211] the prewar and postwar periods to gain, as she puts it, “a better sense of the changes the war brought” to this rural Indiana county and “contrast the urban focus of previous Northern home-front studies” (p.12). Divided into three logical parts consisting of prewar (beginning in 1850), the war, and postwar (beyond 1877), she then divides each section into men’s sphere and politics, women’s sphere and their dependence on men, and the issue of race in Putnam County. She ties each section together by following the lives of local citizens throughout this period. She argues that all Americans were influenced by the issue of slavery and race whether they were intimately involved in or opposed to abolition or not. Basing her conclusions on an impressive array of town, county, state, and national records, newspapers, diaries, correspondence, and memoirs, she provides a complex look at Putnam County and how it fits into this tumultuous period.

It is the scope of this study that gives it weight. By examining both prewar and postwar history, Etcheson is able to show the lasting impact of the conflict. Among many of her important points, she reminds us that northern states had complex ideas about race and war goals. Antebellum Indiana, for instance, had pervasive racism represented in antiblack laws that forbade the migration of blacks into the state and provided few civil protections for black residents. In spite of the small black community of Putnam though, after the war prominent African American residents encouraged North Carolina blacks to migrate to Indiana. The partisan politics that split over race issues before the war and resorted to violence continued after the war by attacking these newcomers who challenged white supremacy. Likewise, she cleverly uses pension benefits to consider gender and race. While pensions bolstered veterans as the breadwinners of their families, in an ironic twist they also gave soldiers’ widows an independence that they had never enjoyed while their husbands were alive. Furthermore, pensions allowed black veterans to enjoy the benefits and thus were a “radical break with white supremacy” (p. 212). [End Page 212]

Overall, this work is well suited to undergraduate study. It could be used to discuss the impact of national political issues on local politics, Indiana history as part and parcel of the war effort, gender roles and race relations, the issues of divided citizenry and the Copperheads, and more. Etcheson’s scope of the 1850s to the 1880s provides scholars with a broad look at the impact of the war that is rarely seen on such an intimate level. This work has much to offer both student and Civil War scholar.

Patricia Richard

Patricia Richard is associate professor of history at Metropolitan State College of Denver in Denver, Colorado, and author of Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort (2003).

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