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  • From Hometown to Battlefield in the Civil War Era: Middle Class Life in Midwest America by Timothy R. Mahoney
  • Christopher Phillips
Timothy R. Mahoney. From Hometown to Battlefield in the Civil War Era: Middle Class Life in Midwest America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 504 pp. $65.99 (cloth).

For readers seeking a full portrayal of how the Civil War experience affected the towns, villages, and peoples of the Midwest, this book will likely not satisfy. As the third volume in the author's trilogy on the emergence and solidification of nineteenth-century middle-class society, Mahoney's book reads as such. The war, in fact, was simply another facet of hometownism.

The main interpretive threads—first, that rapid town-building and intense boosterism were major formative influences in emerging urban middle-class culture and identity, and, second, that the Civil War was a watershed—read mostly here as a feedback loop to the previous books. Mahoney's principal motif for this redefinition of process and place—Main Street—is largely subsumed within myriad, too oft en disconnected details about civilian and military personae in discrete wartime communities: the river towns of Dubuque, Davenport, and Keokuk, Iowa, and of Galena, Illinois.

Details about these places abound on multiple fronts: the financial downturn of 1857 and its traumatic disruptions, including its negative impact on boosterism; the prewar and wartime experiences of leading citizens such as Galena's Elihu Washburne and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Ottawa's William H. Wallace (that Mahoney does not focus on Ottawa, Illinois, hints at the book's jumbled nature); the initial rush to the colors and subsequent wartime soldiering experiences of these communities' young and middle-aged men; the minutiae of military organization in the regiments they filled, as well as their adaptation to military life as "citizen soldiers" and their experiences of battle and camp; and the formation and activities of Union Leagues and sanitary commissions. Surely the high point of the book is Mahoney's fine-grained view of the Civil War's outbreak in 1861, by which point boosters used the coming fury to regain and reinvigorate a shaken Main Street. They did so by showing public leadership in civic engagement, expressed in parades, union meetings, debates, and civic committees. Through these, they headed up and harnessed the rage militaire that fueled the mass enlistment and mobilization of local citizens.

However intimate his intent to personalize the communities he covers, Mahoney's effort is surprisingly impersonal and oft en tedious. His cast of characters is mostly drawn from towns' upper strata, including business, [End Page 208] political, and military leaders and public figures. By cleaving tightly to his thesis about class formation, he ignores several foundational and evolving home-front realities that would have drawn in readers to the wartime human drama unfolding within the book's towns. Mahoney emphasizes the importance of place, yet his use of the terms "western" and "Great West" offers no explanation of their meanings or understandings. The West, and thus westernness, appear simply to be geographical phenomena, extensions of the East even for class formation; readers are left to wonder what precisely was a "western middle class?" Women's voices on Main Street in wartime and beyond, apart from their work in hospitals and soldiers' aid societies, are mostly silent in Mahoney's narrative. He also neglects the fate of people who were not "middle class," or who lived near the towns Mahoney covers and thus were part of their metropoles. These omissions are glaring when considering the home-front's greatest political disruption: dissent against Abraham Lincoln's administration and war effort by Peace Democrats, known as "Copperheads." Mahoney devotes precious few pages to this "spatial narrative" by way of discussing the arrest of a handful of dissenters, including Dubuque Herald editor Dennis Mahoney (342–44). Curiously, the term "conscription" does not appear at all in the index. The Emancipation Proclamation is mentioned on only one page of the book, despite the fact that the dissent movement was driven centrally by conflicts over class and race, drawing primary energy from the twin issues of conscription and emancipation. Many middle states, not...