- Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War Ed. by Ginette Aley and J. L. Anderson
In the Civil War era, the midwestern United States, contemporarily known as the Old Northwest or the Middle West, contributed greatly to the conflict. Numerous Union leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman, came from the Midwest. The famed Union Iron [End Page 91] Brigade consisted entirely of regiments formed in three midwestern states. In addition, the region produced the wheat and corn that fed the Union armies that marched through the Confederacy. Despite these contributions to the Union war effort, Civil War scholars have paid little attention to the region’s home front.
In this work, seven scholars focus on numerous aspects of the midwestern home front to gain a better understanding of what the region’s population experienced during the war. Previously, many historians examining the northern home front treated the region as a monolithic entity. Aley and Anderson, however, argue that the Midwest fails to fit into the established historical mold and that the region consisted of a mainly rural population that settled the region from both northern and southern states. The region’s cross-cultural and rural nature contributed to the population’s home front experiences.
Throughout the volume, historians examine both traditional fields, like the region’s economy and politics, and new areas of interest, like Civil War prisons and soldiers’ families. Michael P. Gray’s examination of the Johnson’s Island Prison in Ohio shows midwesterners’ fascinations with Confederate prisoners and the economic benefits of these prisons. Gray points out that Johnson’s Island contained a population of captured Confederate officers and that midwesterners’ curiosities with these visitors led to an economic boom in Sandusky, as well as nearby Great Lakes communities that established cruises to see the prisoners. This in turn embittered the Confederate officers, who publically displayed their disdain for the gawkers, and strengthened the local economies.
Julie A. Mujic studies the experiences of college students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In this interesting and novel analysis, she finds that these young men attempted to create their own forms of patriotism through their education, justifying their absence from the battlefield. While other young midwesterners spilled their blood in the South, these students argued that their education prepared them to lead the United States in the conflict’s aftermath, which also contributed to Union victory. R. Douglas Hurt follows this with a study of the region’s agricultural power. Although seemingly an obvious piece of the midwestern experience, Hurt shows how the Union armies’ logistics benefitted from the agricultural power of the Midwest and how the midwestern economy grew in the process. In addition, the region expanded its agricultural power during the conflict, solidifying [End Page 92] its place as the breadbasket of the United States, something few historians have previously noted.
Nicole Etcheson, Aley, and Anderson focus on the experiences of soldiers’ wives and families on the home front, revealing the weakening of the gender structure that resulted from the departure of so many men. Etcheson examines the relationship between the wives of Putnam County, Indiana, soldiers and their in-laws and how these influenced the gendered power struggle between husbands and wives. Since the soldiers pushed their wives to stay with their families when they went off to war, even if the wives’ families lived nearby, Etcheson argues, the “in-law relations were frequently a power struggle between husband and wife, and the husband’s authority often prevailed” (101). Aley concentrates on what the “vacant chair” meant for the women on the home front. She finds that the soldiers’ absences created uncertain futures for women and the soldiers’ families, since their futures were interconnected with their male kin’s presence. Anderson maintains that the experience of Iowa women resulted in the complicating of gender norms in the Midwest as, in the absence of their male relations, women gained...