In Across the Divide: Union Soldiers View the Northern Home Front, historian Steven J. Ramold explores the ways in which soldiers perceived life on the home front. He argues that “stressed by the demands of combat, often frustrated by the lack of success, and burdened by the hardships of army life, many Union soldiers adopted attitudes and opinions about various facets of the war quite different from those of civilians” (1). He asserts that, because of their wartime experiences, the men at arms believed civilians did not understand soldiers’ struggles. A communication divide furthered the misunderstandings between them. Ramold attempts to demonstrate conflicts over issues like emancipation, conscription, the Copperheads, and the 1864 election.
Regarding emancipation, Ramold classifies the soldiers into abolitionists, anti-abolitionists, and emancipationists. He argues that there was no shared belief in a war to end slavery but that wartime experiences caused soldiers to become more open to emancipation. He occasionally confuses his own categories, however, as seen in his explanation of the evolution of one soldier’s views. Charles Wills originally opposed emancipation, but “he adopted an emancipationist attitude, especially with regard to African American soldiers.” And “by the end of the war, Wills was a full abolitionist” because he supported emancipation (61). To soldiers, “emancipationism represented a middle ground and a policy that they were comfortable in carrying out” (86). Yet, at the same time, Ramold shows that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was controversial and many soldiers opposed it. In this telling, it is not clear when emancipation became a “moderate position” (86). Significantly, his categorization is sufficiently broad enough to encapsulate civilian views; thus, arguing for a divide between the soldiers and those at home makes little sense here.
Ramold’s best case for the divide between civilians and soldiers comes in his chapter on conscription. Soldiers supported it, while those at home opposed it. Soldiers viewed resisters as cowards unwilling to sacrifice for the cause, and the “result was a sense of alienation and hostility between soldiers who fought and those at home who had agendas and reasons of their own” to avoid the war (113). Soldiers understandably viewed deserters, draft resisters, and Copperheads with antipathy, as they undermined the Union cause. However, it is not clear just how many civilians held opposing views. [End Page 94] Recent scholarship has shown divisions on the northern home front; there was a range of opinion on matters like the draft and opposition to the war. But Ramold’s home front is monolithic, and his civilians generally come off uncommonly bad: gouging prices, supporting treason, evading service. In his view, which underestimates the resolve of northerners, civilians appeared to have little commitment to the cause.
The book usefully charts the 1864 election in the camps, arguing that soldiers who were once Democrats now became Lincoln supporters, as dedication to the war trumped party affiliation. The soldiers’ support for Lincoln guaranteed his reelection. Here again, Ramold paints the soldiers and civilians as at odds over the 1864 election. While the soldiers clearly supported the administration more than the voters at home did, his analysis again misses the resolve of northern civilians. Yes, some civilians voted for Democrat George McClellan, but Lincoln still won a majority of the vote.
Ramold argues, problematically, that the divides that were so great ended with the fighting. Most troubling is his assertion that “membership in the Democratic Party went from a status tantamount to treason to a common political affiliation, and a Copperhead referred only to a snake” (169). This clearly ignores the contentious political atmosphere of Reconstruction, in which southern sympathizers were branded as Copperheads and the Republicans continued waving the bloody shirt at least into the 1880s. Recent scholarship has shown how northern soldiers were the ones holding on to unionist memories even while the rest of the county was moving toward reconciliation.
Across the Divide draws on a rich collection of primary sources, but Ramold’s inconsistent editing of them is distracting. More importantly...