- Civil War Dynasty: The Ewing Family of Ohio by Kenneth J. Heineman
The members of Thomas Ewing Sr.’s family were seemingly everywhere and knew everyone involved in the sectional conflict, the secession crisis, and the Civil War. Historian Kenneth Heineman does a superb job of tracing their history and connecting it to that of the nation, placing the family at the center of an engaging narrative that asserts their central place in the fratricidal conflict that nearly tore the United States asunder. Heineman shows how Thomas Ewing Sr. rose to social and political prominence in Ohio during the first half of the nineteenth century, building a family, a fortune, and a near-endless network of political friends along the way. He bequeathed to his children—sons Philemon, Hugh, Thomas Jr., and Charles, along with daughter Ellen—an unwavering faith in the American republic. That faith would guide them through the antebellum and war years and lead them to seek a middle road between the nation’s Radical Republican and Proslavery Democratic political extremes. Maria Boyle Ewing, a devout Catholic, provided the remaining tenets of the Ewing family faith by insisting that her Presbyterian husband agree to raise their children in the Catholic Church. The family thus bridged the sectarian gap between Protestant and Catholic just when nativist derision and sectional division was rending the American social and political scene. Heineman charts this family’s history to lay bare the political and religious complexities of the Civil War era. He argues that the Ewing family pursued a moderate racial and political tack that prevailed in many northern families—families that made the social, cultural, political, and military decisions of the period.
Heineman’s narrative begins with Thomas Ewing’s humble beginnings as a salt boiler in Virginia’s Kanawha Valley, education at Ohio University, and entry into the legal profession and ultimately politics. Despite settling in heavily Democratic Lancaster, Ohio, Ewing eventually rode his growing Whig Party credentials into the U.S. Senate, then to positions as secretary of the treasury and later secretary of the Home Department (Department of the Interior). By 1850, he was a major voice in Whig Party politics. Throughout, he espoused a thoroughly Whig stance on slavery, citing the peculiar institution as an obstacle to economic growth and individual prosperity but [End Page 220] balking when confronted with humanitarian or moral concerns. Ewing was opposed to Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850; its passage effectively killed the Whig Party and ended his political career. He remained, however, an intimate associate of national leaders into the 1860s, especially presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. His behind-the-scenes influence combined with his sons’ emergence maintained the Ewings’ prominence in Ohio and Washington, D.C., and even extended it into Bleeding Kansas and Golden California.
As Heineman shows, Thomas Sr. reluctantly backed Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860 and, with his typically moderate voice, advised Lincoln throughout the war. Sons Hugh, Thomas, and Charles all became Union army generals over the course of the war, while son-in-law William Tecumseh Sherman won pivotal victories leading the Army of Tennessee, all of which earned Thomas Sr. the sobriquet “Father of Generals.” Thus, the Ewings were indispensable to the Union war effort, militarily and politically. Heineman argues that Ewing and his brood, immediate and extended, espoused an avid unionist but moderate racial doctrine. An ecumenical family ensconced in a racist and nativist culture, the Ewings held a moderate stance on slavery that reflected their own personal travails and mirrored those of many northern antebellum whites who similarly opposed slavery but feared racial equality. As such, the Ewings’ family history traces the nation’s, highlighting the most contentious issues and events that caused the Civil War, the major campaigns that brought about Union victory and emancipation, and the political adjustments that those changes wrought during Reconstruction. But as Reconstruction subsided, white reconciliation prevailed, and racial reforms languished, the Ewings faded from public memory, leaving only...