- War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era ed. by Joan E. Cashin
Material culture permeates popular engagement with the Civil War: relic hunters scour battlefields; museum visitors peruse artifacts; collectors bid on treasures. Academic historians, who typically gravitate toward documents, often overlook objects, but this outstanding volume represents a major step toward correcting that oversight.
Editor Joan E. Cashin opens with an introduction to object studies and a thoughtful call for further research. The Civil War, she argues, "transformed the physical world and ideas about that world in ways that were national in scope yet very personal in effect." (p. 7) The subsequent essays range widely while reinforcing this vital point. Some explore how objects informed views of the past and the future. Jason Phillips analyzes interpretations of John Brown's pikes, which variously heralded frontier conflict, class struggle between free laborers and elite planters, and race war. Ultimately, the pikes made [End Page 400] history by rousing abolitionists and secessionists to action. Objects also provoked conflict over the past, as Cashin explains in an essay on contests over Revolutionary War relics prized by Unionists and Confederates alike.
The Civil War also created new relics by imbuing ordinary articles with personal and public meaning. Earl J. Hess examines the often intense connections between soldiers and the small arms and artillery pieces with which they fought. Defensive objects inspired similar veneration, particularly the bullet-stopping Bibles analyzed in Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray's superbly designed essay. Collectors value these tomes as novelties, but the authors contextualize them by uncovering nineteenth-century beliefs about books as bulletproof shields. Moving from the battlefield to Alabama's non-elite households, Victoria E. Ott shows that the production and protection of everyday items allowed common whites to express gender and political identities, while deprivation sapped their commitment to the Confederacy. Sarah Jones Weicksel's analysis of the material lives of freedpeople in Union refugee camps illuminates the experience of emancipation and the struggles between freedpeople and northern relief workers over the nature of freedom.
Material culture studies can also inform environmental history. Lisa M. Brady and Timothy Silver's study of the Antietam National Battlefield situates the battle within a longer historical arc, emphasizing how the natural and built environment shaped wartime experiences and discussing the successes and limitations of postwar efforts at preservation. Robert D. Hicks's innovative coverage of Confederate anti-smallpox campaigns weaves material culture into histories of medicine and the body by framing vaccination material as a biological artifact fashioned by human agency.
Objects also influenced how postwar Americans rebuilt their lives and constructed memories of the conflict. Peter S. Carmichael shows how material things influenced the feelings and actions of Union and Confederate soldiers who gathered trophies and relics in order to craft personal narratives of victory and defeat. These efforts [End Page 401] continued long after the war, as Yael A. Sternhell demonstrates in an insightful study of Jefferson Davis's struggle to regain control over his life and legacy by reclaiming possessions lost during his flight from Richmond in 1865.
Together, these excellent essays highlight several key themes. Methodologically, they establish the importance of putting things in context. Civil War artifacts cannot speak for themselves, but when situated within nineteenth-century lives and worldviews, objects can be as valuable as textual sources. Interpretively, the essays underscore objects' emotional power by highlighting what they can reveal about the interior lives of those who owned, lost, created, and coveted them.
Hopefully, other scholars will heed the authors' calls for future research. This indispensable volume suggests that there are many riches waiting to be unearthed by historians who dig into the field of material culture.
MICHAEL E. WOODS is associate professor of history at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United...