- War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North by Frances M. Clarke
Every historian hopes that his or her book will advance the long march of historiography. Most works do, usually in slight but perceptible ways, [End Page 141] before ultimately falling by the wayside to fresher studies that move the scholarly discourse in new and unexpected directions. Only a few books have the intellectual stamina to endure, to keep pace with the swift and constant movements of our field. Frances M. Clarke's War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North is one such book. This is a masterful and compelling exploration into how middle-class northerners found deep cultural meaning in the hardships of war. Too many historians have dismissed soldier and civilian stories as romantic fodder, charging Victorians with falsifying the "real war." Clarke brilliantly counters by arguing that northerners did not just tell idealized stories; they lived them. On the ground, in the midst of mayhem and death, soldiers and civilians exalted suffering in mutually reinforcing narratives that reassured the middle class of its own superiority while also reaffirming its belief that a war for Union was divinely ordained. It is the dynamic interplay between soldiers and civilians, between words and deeds, and between culture and class that Clarke captures with incredible sophistication, giving us one of the most significant books to come out on the northern war effort and the Civil War soldier experience.
War narratives from the Civil War, with their endless celebrating of battlefield heroics and civilian selflessness, seem implausible to us today, particularly in light of the manufactured narratives about soldiers such as Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. While Clarke does not overlook how sentimentality could lead to exaggerations and distortions, she is primarily concerned with how suffering was an inexhaustible source of inspiration, the very portal for Victorians to feel the purest emotions and acquire the right traits that were seen as elemental to having "character." The fact that the cultural aspirations of most soldiers and civilians were never realized is beside the point. As Clarke makes clear, character was seen as a state to be aspired to, and for Victorians it was all about the journey. They imagined the struggles of war as a way to demonstrate their superiority for all to see and admire. Piety, restraint, manliness, and sympathy were showcased, but as the author points out, only members of the white middle class were seen as capable of such virtues.
Northerners thought the war effort ultimately hinged on willed behavior. Even when soldiers were treated as disposable things by their government and army, they rarely wavered in their idealistic expectations. Clarke cracks open the long-standing binary debate over whether the war advanced national centralization or was experienced at an individual level. The author emphasizes the latter, leaning heavily upon the work of Alice Fahs, but Clarke gets us to the ground level of war, to issues of survival and power, whereas Fahs mostly operates at the level of cultural representation. [End Page 142] Clarke drills down to daily experience, where she shows how members of the United States Sanitary Commission as well as northern nurses and soldiers were not preoccupied with social control or the creation of a bureaucratic state. Rather, they were devoted to promoting the nation as a global standard-bearer for democracy and Christianity, an important finding that dovetails with Gary Gallagher's recent findings in The Union War (2011).
Invisible lines of communication, electrified by emotion and morality, linked civilians and soldiers together. No historian has made these connections between home front and the army before. These interactions, as Clarke shows, brought a degree of cultural unity and political purpose to the northern war effort. Critical to the collective self-identification of civilians and soldiers was the popular idea that northern soldiers were innocent boys, pure in heart and mind, marching off to battle thinking of God, country, and home. While this was generally the case, it did...