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War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North by Frances M. Clarke (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 122-124 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0017

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In this evocative and compelling study of the wartime literature of suffering and benevolence, Frances M. Clarke argues that in the midst of the Civil War’s many changes, “a great deal remained the same” (5). Despite skyrocketing casualty rates and evidence of cruelty on the battlefield and in POW camps, most northerners remained optimistic that the Civil War’s carnage could be redeemed. Northern soldiers who suffered in exemplary ways by exhibiting manly fortitude, selflessness, and mastery of their own pain—and the devoted work of volunteers (mostly women) who provided for and nursed them—would establish that the Union’s cause was morally superior and destined to prevail.

Clarke organizes War Stories according to the different—and yet interwoven—narratives that white, middle-class, pro-Union northerners produced to affirm these ideals. She admits that focusing on this small group of writers “goes against the grain of much recent writing on the Civil War” that has emphasized cross-border interactions and popular literature (3, 5). But in her view, these civilians and soldiers were merely the most vocal of Union volunteers and their stories had enduring appeal; therefore, she contends, this group of writers spoke for and expressed the cultural beliefs of the majority of Civil War northerners.

After presenting the cultural history of suffering in the first chapter, she moves on to a consideration of stories about Union officers’ heroic deaths, descriptions of the behavior of wounded enlistees, and accounts of northern voluntary efforts and their effects on suffering soldiers. These initial chapters are fast-paced and eloquently written, but they do not offer any radically new arguments about the literature of wounded men. What they do present is a voluminous and convincing source base. Clarke evaluates all manner of written sources: poems, songs, essays, memorials, pension records, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, and letters volunteers wrote from battlefields and hospitals. Her attention to soldiers’ diaries and letters and the goods that moved back and forth between battlefield and home front distinguishes her study; these sources ground her literary analysis in the material reality of the war.

Using these sources, Clarke makes some of her more persuasive arguments: that a soldier’s family shaped his wartime experiences and that one of the central “labors of love” that northern volunteers undertook was to establish “invisible wires of sympathy” between the home front and the battlefield (100). These connections—nourished through gifts (with personal, handwritten notes attached) and volunteers’ domestication of hospitals through decor, landscaping, and diversions—induced soldiers to fight valiantly and suffer manfully. Volunteers believed that by strengthening these bonds, they were aiding the war effort in material, measurable ways and “performing vital political work” (110).

These are valuable points, but it is in the last two chapters of the book that Clarke makes her most innovative arguments. In her discussion of voluntary organizations’ celebration of the Union “for its capacity to mobilize a virtuous citizenry and mitigate suffering,” she points out that much of this writing was intended for a European audience (114). To prevent British and French recognition of the Confederacy and to defend the Union from vicious attacks in the European press, the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) used a variety of tactics. It produced lavish and lengthy tribute albums, like Frank Goodrich’s The Tribute Book, explicitly for European audiences; it established sanitary commission branches in Paris and London and sent agents to lecture there; it engaged in a vociferous debate about the treatment of POWs on both sides; and it created a USSC exhibit at the Paris Expo in 1867. These activities, Clarke argues, were meant to portray northern voluntarism as a “monument to ‘free institutions,’ the sign of a humane, Christian community” that would undergird the new nation created by the carnage of the Civil War (139). This analysis reframes our understanding of the USSC and other voluntary organizations and is one of Clarke’s most edifying points here. The other is her discussion of Union amputees.

To determine the significance of narratives that centered on Union soldiers who had lost limbs, Clarke examines almost four hundred manuscripts written by arm amputees who entered penmanship contests held by the New York...



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