- The Divided Family in Civil War America
The metaphor of nation-as-family is a popular construction in which civil war becomes a family quarrel. Amy Murrell Taylor's deeply researched and thoroughly readable book is the first social and cultural history of Civil War–era divided families. It is a study that examines the lives of real people alongside cultural representations, melding personal writings with literary renderings, but the emphasis on people's lives is what makes this work so interesting. [End Page 78]
Taylor's historical actors are white, middling, and well-to-do Americans from Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia (eventually including West Virginia), Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. It is fascinating indeed how many well-known names can be found in these pages (Beauregard, Crittenden, Davis, Jackson, Jefferson, Lee, Lincoln, and Stuart, among others). Because the slaveholding Upper South encompassed "slavery and abolitionism, Democrats and Republicans, industry and agriculture, urban and rural communities" (3), it also nurtured a population of "reluctant Confederates and latent Unionists" (4).
The best historical studies ask "why" questions; the hardest "why" question concerns motivation, and Taylor takes up this challenge. Mid-nineteenth-century white Americans envisioned an idealized family as a private refuge from the public world. Divided families, Taylor finds, tried to bracket issues like slavery, abolition, and secession by invoking such domestic categories as gender, generation, duty, and authority. But divided families, Taylor ultimately argues, were unable to separate politics and family; rather, they faced a world that blurred the idealized division between public and private realms. To her credit, Taylor concedes that even an intensive study of voluminous sources cannot yield definitive answers. She is always clear about unanswerable questions. (She points out, for example, that postwar reconciliation is harder to explore because letters ceased once families were reunited under one roof.)
The heart of Taylor's book investigates particular family relationships. Union fathers, for example, understood Confederate sons as young men in rebellion against paternal authority, reshaping rhetoric about Confederate independence into "just another coming-of-age struggle" (19). Husbands, too, recast the threat of dissenting wives as a familial struggle, or reassured themselves that a wife was entitled to her own opinion so long as her wayward thoughts remained unknown beyond the household. Siblings, too, "took what was unfamiliar to them—political division—and translated it into more familiar forms of domestic conflict" (89). Overall, brothers demonstrated more hostility and anger, whereas female relatives tried (though often failed) to deflect conflict. In discerning these kinds of patterns, Taylor relates both detailed narratives of particular families and briefer supporting examples, always offering the reader nuanced understandings of her subjects.
Among other topics, Taylor also treats travel across borders (in which divided families hoped to convince authorities that visits were thoroughly apolitical) and the problem of Union-Confederate mail (murkily defined as acceptable if it concerned domestic matters only). She also finds that fictional treatments of divided families came in various forms, including seduction tales (there was a Union version and a Confederate version), stories of romantic triangles (also [End Page 79] with Union and Confederate versions), and tales in which slaves defended Confederate sympathizers. On the theme of postwar reconciliation, Taylor uncovers a difficult emotional process in which it was often impossible to erase politics from the domestic sphere; families who tried to forget the past simply found too much of the past manifest in the present.
In an admirable attempt to open up the world of white Americans who so often neglected the reality of slavery, a final chapter treats the efforts of African American families to reunite after emancipation. The chapter feels a bit out of place, as Taylor draws a parallel—which does not quite work—between divided white families during the war and divided black families during slavery and wartime, and between reconciling white families and reuniting black families after the war. A more successful discussion concerns the racist ways in which white writers imagined black Americans as part of the reconciling white nation.