Book Review of
This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North
Ed. Andrew L. Slap and Michael Thomas Smith
New York: Fordham University Press, 2013
by Bernard von Bothmer
Review published in Civil War History (December 2014)
This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North is a series of essays written in honor of the “indefatigable,” “extraordinarily imaginative,” and “stunningly original” (as Michael F. Holt writes in his forward) Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Mark E. Neely Jr. In their introduction, Andrew L. Slap and Michael Thomas Smith give an insightful overview of Civil War historiography, focusing on the Freedom School and the challenges it inspired, which the book’s authors “saw … as an opportunity to explore paradigms that have stood for decades” (p. 7).
Mathew Isham astutely describes the adversarial relationship between the Democratic press and the Democratic Party during the Polk administration, “arguably the party’s greatest period of success” (p. 12). Isham concludes that “intra-party conflicts spawned factional divisions that seriously weakened” the party, leading to the post-war “demise of the partisan newspaper” (p. 11). To Isham, “editors simply did not make obedient foot soldiers” (p. 27), wanting to exert control over the papers, leaving “party leaders … exasperated” (p. 28).
Michael Thomas Smith offers a fascinating use of gender issues to understand Lincoln, noting how often his admirers stressed the self-made man, champion wrestler, and rail-splitter’s masculinity, inner-strength, and firmness, while Lincoln’s detractors attacked and openly mocked him as weak, severely lacking in the virtues of manhood, unable to control his cabinet, and as the timid pawn of sinister government officials who easily manipulated the hapless executive.
Robert M. Sandow’s intriguing essay on Democratic secret societies in Pennsylvania and the issue of dissent during wartime concludes that Copperhead activity “was largely grassroots and uncoordinated rather than the imagined large-scale national conspiracies forming a staple of Republican discourse” (pp. 42–43); was intentionally overstated; and that war critics defended themselves, as did many Confederates, by employing “the memory of the Revolution as an armed struggle of the people against tyranny” (p. 43). Sandow, who offers an excellent historiography section, believes “scholarship should focus more on the meaning and impact of dissent during the war,” which he calls “the norm of American democracy rather than the aberration” (p. 59).
In “Copperheads in Connecticut,” Mathew Warshauer skillfully illustrates how the movement, far from being a fringe-conspiracy, “created a formable faction that affected both the northern home front and the union military effort” (p. 61). To the dismay of Republicans, anti-war sentiment in Connecticut—the “Georgia of New England” (p. 63)—was pervasive and deeply rooted, both at the war’s onset, during periods of Union military struggles, and, especially, after the Emancipation Proclamation, and thus “created a very real concern among soldiers in the field and potentially threatened the war’s outcome” (p. 73). Lincoln—the “smutty joker” (p. 78)—would have lost the state had not soldiers been allowed to vote from the front.
The book contains two stimulating pieces on the Northern military. Timothy J. Orr researched the politics of promotion in the Union army, finding that political issues in the North strongly impacted the institution. “For four years, the administration of the Union Army became one great political squabble” (p. 83). Challenging prevailing orthodoxy, Orr argues that the existence of two parties in the North hurt the Union. Since the Republican Party had only been in existence since 1854, most officers were Democrats. State governors often appointed military commanders based on party loyalty, and “fervent partisanship ruined [the] system of seniority” (p. 99). To Orr, the North “suffered from an overabundance of politics” (p. 101), and military leadership “was diluted by a system that allowed for a profusion of political hacks” to become officers.
Looking at the 1864 election, and in particular soldiers’ letters, Jonathan W. White convincingly challenges the claim that Union soldiers overwhelmingly supported Lincoln, in the truest sense of the word, and were even anti-slavery. Up to 20% did not vote; many voted half-heartedly; others voted purely out of opposition to McClellan; voter intimidation was pervasive; many voted for who they thought would end the war the fastest; soldiers’ political feelings were highly transitory, based upon military conditions; and many were politically apathetic.
Christian B. Keller’s study of the Irish and Germans argues for the importance of Civil War ethnic history. Keller calculates that nearly 30% of the Union army were immigrants, higher than previously acknowledged. Their loyalties were far from monolithic, and changed over the course of the war. Keller sees an “antiassimilationist direction” (p. 132) during the war, primarily due to nativism, and challenges the accuracy of claims of poor German (“flying Dutchman” (p. 135)) battlefield performance (versus the “fighting Irish” (p. 125)). Due to nativism, “Loyalties to one another … equaled or superseded loyalties to the Union cause” (p. 138), sentiments that lingered beyond 1865.
In the most riveting (and graphic) chapter, Michael J. Bennett scrutinizes the notion of “total war” and Confederate soldiers. Though religion, and life on farms, served to temper violence in America, “Southern culture featured an especially violent streak” (p. 144) and a “preexisting hatred for Northerners” (p. 145). Bennett proceeds to detail, and offer explanations for, a series of horrifying and unnerving Confederate battlefield atrocities, topics, the author emphasizes, that “have not been a popular subject among Civil War scholars” (p. 158).
Looking at the conflict’s international implications, Karen Fischer Younger writes of the often neglected subject of the Civil War and Liberia, “the first black republic in Africa” (p. 162), looking at how controversial the land was to both blacks and whites. Liberia “exposed the fallacy that blacks were incapable of caring for themselves and were unfit for voting, work, or government” (p. 163), one of the reasons America took so long to recognize it. Americo-Liberians hoped recognition would increase U.S. emigration and financial investment, neither of which came to pass, to the great detriment of Liberia.
Andrew L. Slap’s essay on African American veterans’ marriages after the war challenges “the idea that most … quickly adopted legalized marriages” (p. 173) by showing how “many … continued practicing non-legalized marriages for decades after emancipation” (p. 174), leading Slap to conclude that perhaps the Civil War was not “as sharp a break with the past as historians have thought” (p. 182). The last entry, by Barbara A. Gannon, chronicles the inspiring tale of former slave Lucy Nichols’ lengthy but ultimately successful attempt to get a government pension for her service as a nurse for over a thousand days in an all-white, all-male, Civil War regiment, a result due in no small part to the steady lobbying efforts of over fifty of the regiment’s veterans whom she had helped in the war and who had “embraced … and accepted her into its fellowship” (p. 187).
The book concludes with a charming, and witty, appreciation from renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who writes that “it is simply staggering to note how many of Mark Neely’s suggestions have in fact inspired important scholarship and publications” (206).