- Across the Divide: Union Soldiers View the Northern Home Front by Steven J. Ramold
This new book by Steven Ramold, the author of previous monographs on African Americans in the Union navy and discipline in the Union army, explores the disconnect and growing differences between Union soldiers and those who stayed behind on the home front. Building on groundbreaking work and arguments by Gerald Linderman and Reid [End Page 467] Mitchell, he finds these differences to be the source of profound tensions and frustration.
The chasm between northern Civil War soldiers and civilians, Ramold contends, was rooted in the brutal and disillusioning experiences of those in the military during the nation’s deadliest war, which created hardened attitudes that those who did not personally experience the battlefield did not, and could not, share. Furthermore, criticism of the seemingly sluggish Union war effort by those who did not serve made veterans defensive and angry. In an interesting chapter, the author explores how shifting gender roles during the war also caused friction. Theoretically dependent wives left at home found themselves exercising a greater degree of autonomy and, sometimes, assertiveness, threatening the expectation of some Victorian men that they held a monopoly on such qualities and prerogatives. Soldiers’ frequent encounters with camp followers and prostitutes—women who likewise did not strictly adhere to conventional standards of appropriate feminine behavior—could also lead to disillusionment and negative attitudes.
While recognizing that very few Union soldiers at the outset of the war supported emancipation, the author sees support, sometimes grudging, for this policy on the rise during the war among both soldiers and the northern public. Soldiers in particular, he contends, were likely to embrace emancipation (as Lincoln presented it in the Emancipation Proclamation) as a necessary war measure, desirable largely as a means to the end of punishing and defeating the Confederates. Widespread opposition and resistance to the draft throughout the North also angered and disappointed those soldiers who had willingly volunteered and who increasingly came to feel that the patriotism of those at home, for whose rights they were fighting, was suspect at best. The development of both a Democratic antiwar movement and spurious conspiracy theories that conflated the more or less loyal opposition with vast, treacherous plots to supposedly treasonously betray the war effort raised hackles among soldiers as well. Soldiers came to strongly support the reelection of Abraham Lincoln as the best way to manifest their disgust at what they perceived as the disloyal Copperheads who supported his 1864 opponent, the initially popular Democratic General George B. McClellan. Soldiers lobbied through personal letters to family members and public letters published in newspapers for civilians to patriotically support Lincoln and the war effort and repudiate what they considered a cowardly and defeatist Democratic ticket, particularly after the party’s adoption of a platform repudiating the war effort and branding it a failure. Often soldiers expressed considerable bitterness and animosity toward civilians, even family members, whose [End Page 468] views on these issues differed from their own. Lincoln’s electoral triumph in 1864, to the soldiers who overwhelmingly cast their votes on his behalf, represented his—and their—triumph over the unworthy elements of their own society who inadequately supported the cause for which they suffered and sacrificed so much.
The book is well written and well researched, particularly in manuscript collections, though at times one would have appreciated a bit more substantial grappling with recent historiography, like Chandra Manning’s work on growing support for abolition among Union soldiers, for instance, though Manning emphasizes the role of idealism in this process. The author’s assertion that future American wars would never feature such a profound disconnect between the experiences and attitudes of soldiers and civilians might draw disagreement from veterans of the Vietnam conflict. Civil War historians should be a bit wary of the tendency to claim precedence and uniqueness for the conflict that we study. The author might also be a bit optimistic in asserting that northern wartime divisions...