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  • The Cacophony of Politicsby J. Matthew Gallman
  • Nicole Etcheson
The Cacophony of Politics Northern Democrats and the American Civil WarJ. Matthew Gallman Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021. 399 pp. ISBN: 97808139465666 (cloth), $35.00.

The question with any Civil War book is whether it contributes anything new to our knowledge or understanding. J. Matthew Gallman makes flattering mention of his "brilliant" predecessor in writing on the Democratic Party, Joel Silbey, but Gallman states that he is "not attempting historiographic interventions here" (238, 10). He offers instead a group of "six core arguments" (11). These include reevaluating the standard labels of War and Peace (or Copperhead) Democrats; understanding the prevalence of politics, especially as revealed by women's interest in the subject; highlighting that events, location, race, and ethnicity affected partisanship; and acknowledging that civil liberties was an important issue. Of these topics, the attention to women's involvement in Democratic politics seems the most original. As a historiographic intervention, however, Gallman emphasizes the myriad different perspectives of Northern Democrats, "the cacophony" of voices, while Silbey saw the Northern party as more united without its Southern wing, despite the main factional divisions, which he labeled "Legitimist" and "Purist" ( A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860–1868[New York: Norton, 1977], 239). [End Page 82]

Each of Gallman's chapters begins with a paragraph-long abstract and contains sections alternating between summary and discussion of primary sources. The summary sections will not bring many surprises to those familiar with Civil War history. Gallman sketches the political events of the war and other information relevant to understanding Civil War partisan activities. Chapter 1, for example, recapitulates the partisan and sectional developments of the pre–Civil War period. Interpolated with these pages of summary are case studies drawn from the diaries, letters, speeches, and newspapers of Northern Democrats. In chapter 3, the reader meets Charles J. Biddle, a Pennsylvania congressman and the son of former US banker Nicholas Biddle. (Quite a few of Gallman's sources come from the elite circles of Philadelphia.) From Charles's correspondence with his wife, Emma, we learn that Emma and other women he knew possessed lively interest in politics. A conservative Union Democrat, Charles opposed emancipation and African American soldiers. Although Gallman will question the labels Warand PeaceDemocrat, he applies the former to Biddle. As the book unfolds, the reader moves between familiar stories of George B. McClellan and Clement Vallandigham and less familiar ones in which we learn the political opinions of William and Jane Standard in Illinois, Maria Lydig Daly in New York City, John Smith in Philadelphia, and many others gleaned from the archives. The chapters on McClellan's nomination as the Democrats' 1864 presidential candidate and the ensuing presidential election feature some of the book's most interesting analysis. The resulting format is episodic, but chapter sections are subtitled, so readers can easily skip over the summaries and read the less familiar case studies.

Gallman has synthesized a vast literature on the Civil War. His analysis of secret societies would have been aided, however, by including Stephen E. Towne's Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War; Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America's Heartland(Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015). Towne has done the closest reading on secret societies, and his work must be considered in any evaluation of how close the Democrats were to active support of the Confederacy.

Despite his emphasis on the "cacophony" of different Democratic beliefs, Gallman concludes that all Northern Democrats agreed on the unconstitutionality of many Lincoln administration actions whether it be the draft, suppressing newspapers, or jailing dissenters. They differed on race with some accepting the need for emancipation and others expressing a full-blown racism which Gallman is at pains to repeatedly remind the reader offends modern sensibilities. Democrats favored "order and stability" which the Republicans threatened (316). One area where Gallman does seem to make a historiographic intervention is in highlighting [End Page 83]Democratic women's involvement in politics. Michael D. Pierson has argued that Democrats were more conservative on gender than Whigs and Republicans thus Democratic women were less openly involved in...

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