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Reviewed by:
  • War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era ed. by Joan E. Cashin
  • Joanna Cohen (bio)
War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era. Edited by Joan E. Cashin. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. 280. Cloth, $90.00; paper, $29.95.)

Relics and ragged haversacks, bullet-riddled books, bowie knives and bodily fluids, even the rocks and water of the battlefield itself might seem to be the leftover detritus of war, stuff that could easily be lost on the tides of history. But in the hands of the twelve authors brought together here by Joan Cashin, such flotsam is transformed into archival treasure, showing us how Americans engaged with, endured, and survived the war in fascinating new ways. Individually, the essays all add new depth to debates over soldiers' motivations and civilians' loyalties, sectional tensions and military operations, and the process of Reconstruction writ large. But the collection is more than the sum of its parts. Together, the essays pose important questions about material culture studies, which will resonate beyond the study of the war itself.

The ten essays are organized in a loosely chronological fashion. They take readers from the horrors of Harpers Ferry to southern "folk" efforts to preserve Revolutionary legacies in the years before the war (36). The essays then move them into the war, onto the field of Antietam, amid the guns and bullets of battle; into the hospitals of Richmond and the reconstructed homes of refugees in contraband camps; and into the disintegrating domestic lives of women in the Wiregrass region of Alabama. The last two essays focus on the war's end, chronicling the immediacy of relic hunting at Appomattox and the bitter postwar life of Jefferson Davis. The effect is kaleidoscopic; each new chapter shakes up the image of the war and refocuses our attention on another aspect of this all-encompassing conflict. [End Page 650]

Broad ranging as they are, the ten essays can be said to cluster around one of three themes that underpin the collection, though they are not explicitly stated. The first of these themes is one of Civil War scholarship's most enduring questions: why did Americans fight? Jason Phillips answers this question by looking at the power that objects—in this case bowie knives—had to inflame sectional tensions and sharpen fears of unknown futures. As he puts it, "These weapons . . . caused alarms, triggered controversies, and divided Americans without shedding blood" (29). Cashin herself considers the mandate to fight through the lens of Revolutionary history, exploring how the relics of that war shaped not only why the Civil War generation fought, but also how they sought to protect or destroy the material world around them. In a similar way, Victoria Ott's essay demonstrates how the material world ordered the wartime experience of poor Alabama families, and in particular prompted women to withdraw their support from the Confederate cause.

Ott's essay is especially interesting as it engages most clearly with the broader historiography on the war, in this case with work on both Confederate womanhood and the idea of the "plain folk" (193). Such a direct engagement demonstrates that which is true for all three of these essays: a discussion of ideology is conspicuously absent whether in the form of nationalism, racial supremacy, or patriarchal power. Instead, things themselves have become the motivation, an argument that sits uneasily because of the intimate scale of the objects' reach.

The essays by Ronald Zboray and Mary Zboray, Earl Hess, and Robert Hicks provide fascinating and discomforting insights into how men (and to a lesser extent women) endured the war. In many ways, these essays bridge the gap between older questions about the technological transformations of the war and newer work that confronts the physical and mental traumas of the conflict. In this, the three essays are enormously successful. They show how material objects such as book-shields, guns, and lancets literally created the connection between individuals and the wide sweep of mechanical and scientific change that they had to absorb, understand, and endure. Surprisingly, the essays on weapons offer a new approach to the question of whether the Civil War...


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pp. 650-652
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