Nicole Etcheson’s richly detailed history of Putnam County, Indiana, joins a number of generational studies of the Civil War era. Throughout her microhistory, Etcheson makes personal and local the debates that moved the nation, demonstrating through-out [End Page 251] that the great issues of the day affected the daily lives of individuals. She brilliantly illuminates how the antebellum conflict over slavery, the reorientation of the war effort toward emancipationist goals, and the debates over the expansion of federal power and the status African Americans during Reconstruction transformed not just political landscapes but also those of gender and racial identity and ideology.
Etcheson divides her work into three parts: The antebellum period, the war years, and the postwar period. She further divides each part into three chapters that examine, to a greater or lesser degree, politics, gender, and racial ideology. The framework allows her to demonstrate what changed and what did not and why. Historians will recognize the author’s account of local politics turned more acrimonious by national debates over slavery, but what distinguishes Etcheson’s study is her attention to the ways these events shaped how people thought about their nation, their community, and themselves.
Etcheson’s depiction of gender relations in Putnam County during the period confirms much recent scholarship. Women and men expected men to be breadwinners and women to manage the household private sphere. Companionate marriage was common, but many men still exercised a more traditional patriarchal control of the home. The war did not alter these accepted gender roles significantly. Etcheson concurs with Nina Silber that for most women, the war did not provide opportunities for entering the public sphere so much as it interfered with their ability to fulfill their accepted gender roles. On the other hand, enlistment in the Union armies brought some Putnam County men a chance to prove themselves, escape parental shadows, and earn a regular income and pension. After the war, soldier pensions provided men with a persistent tie to their wartime service, gave families needed income, and allowed widows not to remarry. Pension politics and the growing temperance movement, furthermore, brought more women into the woman’s movement, even in Putnam County. The effect of the war and the issues at its core, Etcheson suggests, subtly shifted rather than radically transformed gender relations.
The most dramatic changes, Etcheson argues, occurred in the status of the county’s black population and in the racial ideology of white residents. In the antebellum decades, local Democrats, Know Nothings, and Republicans sparred over the government’s power to halt the spread of slavery, yet few questioned white supremacy. Fewer than one hundred African Americans lived in the county before the war. Those who did, frequently had been born slaves, freed, and brought to Indiana by their owners, who maintained social relations with their former slaves that, despite white recollections in later years, often continued to be exploitative. White racism predominated, evidenced by the 1851 Indiana Constitution, which barred black migrants, intermarriage, and black testimony in court cases involving whites. This atmosphere, Etcheson suggests, led many to leave, including the Peters family, which immigrated to Liberia in the 1850s. The political battles over slavery did nothing to mitigate white racism even for antislavery advocates. Democrats insisted that the debate over slavery’s expansion [End Page 252] would eventually threaten white supremacy, but even staunch Republican leaders in Putnam County, and throughout Indiana rejected such claims as paranoia.
Etcheson confirms the findings of other historians that the transformation of the war from one to preserve the Union to a war against slavery challenged white supremacy and led many northerners to accept racial egalitarianism, at least for a time. Copperhead sympathy in Putnam County remained strong throughout the war, especially outside of the unionist stronghold of Greencastle, sometimes leading to violent confrontation between Union enrollment officers and draft resisters. Such divisions deepened after the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of black soldiers. Many Republican and Democratic unionists opposed emancipation...