Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War ed. by Ginette Aley and J. L. Anderson (review)
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Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War. Edited by Ginette Aley and J. L. Anderson. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Pp. 196. $39.50 cloth)

Ginette Aley and J. L. Anderson have entered a historiographical terrain only recently being plowed. Studies of the northern home front are just now emerging, and in so doing they are redirecting scholarship on the effects of the Civil War away from a preoccupation with southern experiences, which for a time seemed to count for all, to a wider compass of inquiry and interest. Part of the new direction is a growing recognition that such concepts as “a” northern or “a” southern home front conflate and sometimes confuse the varied and [End Page 683] variegated experiences of the many and diverse peoples and places within those larger regions. Aley and Anderson discover and delineate a “midwestern” home front rooted in the essential character of the region: overwhelmingly agricultural and rural, mixed in population (e.g., “Yankees” from New England, people from the mid-Atlantic, southerners from Virginia and border states, foreign immigrants with various concentrations), rapid and recent in growth, and, for most, newly admitted as full states into the Union. As such, the Midwest resembled the South more than the Northeast in critical ways. Yet, the midwestern states all stayed with the Union during the war. And that made all the difference in their identity.

The introduction and seven essays in this fine collection cover a wide range of topics, several of which have never before received a sustained scholarly focus. Michael Gray offers an insider-outsider view of Johnson Island prison in Ohio, observing how the prison became a site of curiosity and even celebrity. Tour boats took people out to see the prisoners—who waved Confederate flags and shouted their own loyalty in defiance—as if they were creatures in a rare show. Julie Mujic looks at college men at the University of Michigan, noting that over the course of the war such men justified their studies as preparation for the necessary political work that would follow the nation’s ordeal by fire. Nicole Etcheson tracks the wartime experiences of Indiana women forced by circumstance and necessity to live with their in-laws and finds that issues of male authority and kinship obligations often made for tense relations in these makeshift “households.” Ginette Aley counters the prevailing image of northern women as joiners of voluntary associations, such as soldiers’ relief organizations, by showing that midwestern rural women had little time or opportunity for such work and gave little thought to it. Rather, they continued the relentless tasks of an agricultural household, which now included managing farms, in consultation with their menfolk away at war or in concert with trusted men nearby.

J. L. Anderson echoes Aley’s arguments with a close examination of Iowa farmsteads during the war, and makes the important point [End Page 684] that while soldiers tried to stay involved in farm management through correspondence, they trusted their wives in making the day-to-day decisions. More broadly, R. Douglas Hurt measures the agricultural output of the Midwest and the efforts to introduce new crops, such as cotton and tobacco, to meet wartime demands. Wartime production brought wealth but also increased debt and levels of risk, as it tied midwestern farmers more tightly into the emerging grain, pork, and other commodity markets. Taking a different tack from much of the book, Brett Barker revisits the contentious question of wartime political dissent and efforts to suppress it. He demonstrates that in southeastern Ohio military and government officials worked hard to silence the opposition press. They were aided by boycotts and violence directed against “peace” Democrats, all of which threatened normal political processes and added to political unrest and distrust on all sides.

Taken together, these essays invite further consideration of what a “home front” even means. More so, they raise questions about where to draw the boundaries of “North” and “South,” especially given the porous politics, family ties, and common agricultural interests of border regions. In that regard, one wonders how previous “border wars,” as described by Stanley Harrold especially...