Behind Bayonets: The Civil War in Northern Ohio
The Civil War continues to be a topic of nearly infinite fascination with countless books being published on the conflict each year. An unfortunate by-product of this profusion of material is that it has forced historians, driven by the never-ending quest for innovation, to explore subjects of an increasingly narrow focus. During the past decade alone, books have appeared on such obscure topics as Civil War time-keeping, Civil War buglers, and Civil War balloonists. At first glance one might be tempted to place Behind Bayonets in this category, but in fact this book has much to offer both professional historians and the general reader.
The subject has much to recommend it—Ohio played a vital role in the Northern war effort and contributed more than 300,000 troops and 230 regiments to the Union cause, numbers surpassed only by those of New York and Pennsylvania. Additionally Ohio was also home to many of the war's key players such as Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, along with several military commanders including William Sherman (whose brother John served as one of Ohio's U.S. senators), and future presidents Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield.
While it carries the subtitle The Civil War in Northern Ohio, the main focus of Behind Bayonets is the city of Cleveland and its environs. The choice of Cleveland is a good one. With a population of about 43,000 people in 1860, Cleveland was both an important commercial center and a stronghold of the Republican Party and the antislavery movement (radical abolitionist John Brown hailed from nearby Hudson, Ohio). Cleveland was also home [End Page 100] to John D. Rockefeller who, as a titan of the newly emerging oil industry, would play a prominent role in the transformation of America into an industrial giant. Both the antislavery movement and Rockefeller receive prominent treatment in Behind Bayonets. In this way the book not only illustrates the meaning of the war itself, but also hints at the changes that the war brought both to Cleveland and to the nation at large.
Among the book's main strengths are its descriptive quality and its ability to accurately convey the experience of life in another time and another place, while at the same time make those experiences relatable to the modern reader. One of the book's highlights in this regard is its account of Lincoln's 1861 stop in Cleveland on his way to Washington for his inauguration. Lincoln's visit is of particular interest in that it offers the reader a side of Lincoln not often seen. The Lincoln presented in Behind Bayonets is not the Lincoln of history. This is not the Great Emancipator, nor even Lincoln the president, but rather Lincoln the celebrity. As president-elect Lincoln was largely an unknown quantity. Certainly he had done and said little to inspire confidence, but as a well-known name he naturally attracted crowds wherever he went. Strangely enough this image of Lincoln as media-star makes him seem more accessible to anyone living in today's celebrity-obsessed American culture.
Another of the book's highlights is the 1864 Northern Ohio Sanitary Fair. While the purpose of the fair—to raise funds for a "Soldiers Home" for troops on their way to or from the war—was quite serious, the book's detailed portrait of the fair accurately conveys the enormous excitement that the event must have generated. Of particular interest is the depiction of Floral Hall and its central display (erected directly over the city's monument to Commodore Perry) which, judging from the following excerpt, must have presented an awesome sight to those who saw it: "On the eastern side, for example, (local florist) Theodore Shuren of Superior Street had constructed a Swiss mountainside depicting cottages, flocks of goats, millstream and mill, and a basin with real fish at the bottom" (77).
While Behind Bayonets has much to recommend it, it is not without its flaws, the most serious of which is the fact that its main author, David Van Tassel, died before he could finish it. While John Tacha has attempted to complete the manuscript using Van Tassel's notes, this remains a serious handicap. Indeed the main reaction that one has from reading Behind Bayonets is a sense of incompleteness, that Van Tassel must have had more to say. Despite these limitations, Behind Bayonets offers a fascinating portrait of one community's experience of life on the homefront during the Civil [End Page 101] War, and is a welcome addition to the literature of the Civil War as well as to local Cleveland history.