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Reviewed by:
  • Civil War Time: Temporality and Identity in America, 1861–1865
  • Amy S. Greenberg
Civil War Time: Temporality and Identity in America, 1861–1865. By Cheryl A. Wells ( Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. xii plus 195 pp. $39.95).

For at least fifteen years it has been a cliché of the war movie, usually illustrated through slow-motion action sequences, that a soldier's time perception is radically altered during battle. Scholars attempting to determine the length of a battle based on first-hand accounts can vouch for the fact that the manner in which war alters time consciousness is not simply a cinematic convention; men fighting side by side often report shockingly different assessments of the length of a fight. So Cheryl Wells' contention that "battle time" during the Civil War was a particular temporality that trumped attempts to impose clock discipline on warfare is not particularly surprising. What makes this brief study significant is the detailed manner in which she investigates precisely what was at stake in the struggle between clock and battle time, particularly on the battlefield, and the ramifications of the temporary victory of battle time among those participating in the war. Wells' primary argument here is that battle time "reconfigured activities in camps, hospitals and prisons by trumping all other times and forcing soldiers, prisoners, and nurses to embrace task orientation."(9) These changes were not permanent, after the war participants returned to a clock-oriented temporality.

Wells follows in the footsteps of her mentor, Mark M. Smith, in asserting that the salient division between the Union and Confederacy was not one of a more industrialized and clock-disciplined North and a preindustrial South, but between two regions equally engaged with "modern time consciousness."(3) Her argument is at its most persuasive in her two battlefield chapters. Union and Confederate generals both tried and failed to fight clock-regulated battle offensives. These choices proved disastrous both for the North at the first battle of Bull Run in 1861 and for the South at Gettysburg in 1863 when delays prevented the coordination of troops at predetermined times. Always, it was the offensive force that suffered the most when it depended on the clock. When "commanders lost control of the clock," clock time lost "its authority to order action," and "military precision and coordination... fragmented into multiple and often conflicting times...s"(35) Although officers considered their pocket watches to be essential tools, their efficacy was repeatedly compromised by natural and human forces precisely when it was most costly. Her argument holds up less well in chapters on hospitals and prisons. It is not clear what "temporal freedom" (88) battle time brought to Civil War nurses, since the demands of tending to large numbers of badly wounded soldiers increased their workload exponentially, robbing them of sleep and in many cases their health. Did working through the night really destabilize gender norms, and if so, in what way was this liberating? Nor is it obvious how the fact that watches were regularly stolen from inmates proves that "mechanical timepieces lost their intrinsic value inside of prisons."(93) Significantly, although the author notes that sales of watches to soldiers helped prevent one watch company from going out of business during the war, it is unclear how widespread the ownership of timepieces was at this time among soldiers and northern women, two groups that Wells contends were [End Page 747] increasingly invested in clock consciousness. Nor is it clear what to make of the fact that, as the author's own anecdotes reveal, personal timepieces were highly unreliable. To what extent did the owner of a frequently broken watch trust that watch to tell the correct time? Finally, more attention to Alexis McCrossen's work on the Sabbath in Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (2000) could have helped the author contextualize the ongoing tension between battle time and God's time on Sundays. Overall, however, this study makes a notable contribution to the study of the social history of the Civil War and temporal perception in the nineteenth century.

Amy S. Greenberg
Penn State University


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