Sunday, July 10, 2011

Continuity and Change in the Civil War

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

And good evening to you where ever in the world you might be. Great news! Thanks to the nice people (especially Joseph and Ravi) at the Apple Store in the Grove in Hollywood, my computer is back up and running...better, stronger, faster - and all for no charge. You gotta love these guys when it comes to customer service.

Today I have been reading Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman. The title is a shade misleading because it is (mostly) about Philadelphians at war, who I suppose are indeed northerners, but not any more northern that the good citizens from Boston, New York, Cincinnati, or Milwaukee. So the book - a collection of essays - is not so much about all northerners, just some. But while I have a tendency to pick nits about nearly everything, I would also like to point out that this is a very good book. Buy it - you won't be sorry - especially if you have more than a passing interest in the City of Brotherly Love.

Northerners at War has got me thinking about a puzzling question: did the war act as a great catalyst for change in the United States or did things end up pretty much the same in 1865 as they had been in 1860 and before? The question in and of itself is not what I find so puzzling, but rather, why it is framed in this manner. Gallman, by the way, stresses continuity. Case in point from the opening essay: yes - northern (from Philly) women moved in to the public sphere in new ways through their work in the United States Sanitary Commission and in other capacities during Philadelphia's Great Central Fair in 1864. But, as Gallman points out, their work was circumscribed by prevalent gender roles. They did many of the things that mid-nineteenth century women did, they just did them outside the home - in public...and in the press. So it seems that gender assumptions made no great leaps during this period. Continuity prevailed (at least in Northerners).

I can't say with any degree of certainty that I have all the answers here, but I will ask this: does framing a historical inquiry in the "either it changed or it didn't" manner only present a sort of flimsy dichotomy? From a northern perspective, the Civil War broadly defined was an effort of continuity from the very beginning - restore the Union. And that they did. And they did so by harnessing the available resources - including the work of those who had seldom before (or in limited ways) entered the realm of public  - and dare I say....traditionally political - activity. I can get behind Gallman's focus on continuity. But his juxtaposition against change leaves me hanging a little. Is that really all there is to it?

Many other historians have a tendency to look at the war as a great transitional event - particularly when it comes to peoples' self image as citizens  - or in terms of assumptions about race, class, name it. I am going to go way out on a limb and challenge this. But not in a way that simply accents the absence of transition. Looking at United States history as an unfolding of a series of transitions from one thing to another (the Civil War being the most apparent example of this) assumes a near teleological  - and almost always triumphal - trajectory.

While transitions certainly took place during the war (just ask the 3 million former slaves in 1865...), we could say transition (or change or whatever you want to call it) happened in an effort to get back to something that many Americans in 1860 thought could be slipping away. So northerners fought (and won) the war. And in so doing opened some doors for people who had suffered from the imposition of custom - but in an additive rather than transitional way.  We might even say that change assumed a conservative tone.

Have I simply confused the issue further? Good. At any rate, these are just a few ideas that I have been toying around with lately - so I would like to thank Matt Gallman for his thought provoking words.




  1. One quick note - the research that I had started on my next big project concerning Union veterans is the West...well - it was completely lost, which is a bummer. Easy come...easy go. I guess it is back to the Rosecrans papers at UCLA!

  2. Isn't the tension between change and continuity one of the themes we should always be examining when documenting and analyzing major historical events, such as the Civil War, rather than determining which was dominant?

  3. Yes Marc - I think that is important. It is the typical juxtaposition that I find somewhat problematic. I have been thinking a lot lately about change for the sake of continuity...if that makes sense. Stick around. I will be venturing down this path for a while as I work out the kinks in my analytical approach.