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  • Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman
  • Lorien Foote (bio)
Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front. By J. Matthew Gallman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 327. Cloth, $45.00.)

An interested but uninformed reader surveying titles related to the Civil War would be pardoned for reaching an erroneous conclusion. Considering the number of studies on the subject, the hypothetical reader might assume that most northern white men were either soldiers or dissenters on the home front, while most northern women volunteered at sanitary fairs. J. Matthew Gallman knows better, and his study examines [End Page 452] the immense number of northerners who supported the Union’s war effort but who chose not to make personal sacrifices for the cause. Defining Duty in the Civil War is a study of the messages about patriotism and duty contained in a variety of printed materials produced during the war: cartoons, song sheets, recruiting posters, popular novels, satire, editorials, and articles and stories in newspapers and journals. Gallman explains how these works were disseminated throughout the nation to create a single public discourse absorbed by a vast rural and urban middle class. This literature contained a coherent cultural message that might surprise both the hypothetical uninformed reader and more knowledgeable scholars of the Civil War.

Middle-class northerners who looked at cartoons and read popular literature found that expectations about a citizen’s duty to the nation were modest. All that was required of good citizens was enthusiastic support for the war through good times and bad; personal sacrifice was not required. For a man, the decision to enlist or not was presented as a personal choice with numerous legitimate reasons to stay home. During the draft, men were simply required to play by the rules and take their chances along with everyone else. If called to service, there was no stigma attached to those who used legal avenues to avoid service. A man’s only obligation was to think carefully about his decision in consultation with his conscience and his family. Women were called upon to be informed. Their most important role in the war was to encourage men to enlist (although the literature aimed at men supported those who did not do so) and to embrace the disfigured men who returned home from the war.

If cultural messages did not urge northerners toward any specific personal sacrifices, they did paint a clear portrait of how not to behave. Satire ridiculed the “swells” and “silly women” who were ignorant fools, and the “shoulder straps”—hypocrites who wore uniforms but avoided battle. Corrupt war contractors and government officials received ire, as did those cynics who made profits off the war while being indifferent to the cause. Cartoons and articles targeted the “shoddy aristocracy” for particular abuse. These sinners were newly wealthy shopkeepers and small-scale traders, usually portrayed as immigrant Irish New Yorkers, who had inappropriate social aspirations. They spent vast sums in a manner that revealed their ignorance and lack of taste. Gallman comments that the war thus “provided a convenient outlet for broad-based class and ethnic hostilities” (114).

In contrast with the spate of recent studies on the development of concepts of citizenship and nationalism in the North during the Civil War, Gallman finds that in the popular literature he examined, there was “little [End Page 453] sense of national citizenship as an identity that encompassed both rights and responsibilities, framed as an explicit reciprocal relationship between the individual and the state” (257). The exception was the conversation about duty in the northern free black community, which hinged on questions of “collective obligations” and “citizenship and reciprocity” (225–26). The discourse in the white community, on the other hand, focused rather on the personal decisions of individuals. This conclusion places Defining Duty in the Civil War squarely in line with Alice Fahs’s comprehensive study The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 (2001), which argues that the Civil War reinforced and promoted individualism as much as it did...