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wars within a war

11 june 2009

The American Civil War was such a gigantic conflict that it spawned any number of meta-conflicts: over why it was begun, over how it should be or should have been fought, over how it would be remembered. The essays in Joan Waugh & Gary Gallagher's collection Wars within a War are an eclectic and uneven bunch, but they share the loose theme of meta-conflict. At their best, they provide very thought-provoking insights into how literal contested sites can become the metaphorically contested sites of contemporary social theory.

I have read a modest amount of Civil War history, but there is much in Wars within a War quite new to me. Stephanie McCurry writes about the 1863 women's food riots in several Confederate cities as if they were an endlessly-discussed episode, but I had never heard of them. Similarly, I did not know the history and controversies overy the building of soldiers' homes for Union veterans, at least not in anything like the depth explored by James Marten in his sharply-detailed essay.

At their best, the essays in Wars within a War are strongly and plausibly argued, with a larger critical point always in view to help pre-empt the "so what" question. McCurry, for instance, is less interested in retelling the story of the food riots than in exploring what food rioting meant for women's identities and talents for political organization in the wartime South. She also points to the riots as a stage in the development of a "big state" consciousness that (implicitly) prefigures elements of the New Deal. Marten poises the soldiers' home at the forefront of an ideological shift between family values and the responsibilities of that same big welfare state in the North after the war.

Harold Holzer reprints a number of cartoons satirizing both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. They'd be worth an entry in the volume just to have them shown and pointed at, but Holzer does much more than point. He develops a keen and quite generalizable argument that political cartoons don't argue so much as reinforce already-held beliefs. One key warrant for Holzer's claim is that money trumps ideology. He observes that most Civil War cartoons were produced by commercial publishers out for a buck. Their political convictions were often nil (they would frequently produce parallel series of images on both sides of an issue), but their marketing instincts were sharp. They truly gave the biased consumer what that consumer wanted to see. In the light of current interests in "visual argument," Holzer's principles of cartoon ideology are a useful framework for analyzing opinionated images.

On the purely military front, I was impressed by Matthew Gallman's analysis of the Battle of Olustee. This obscure 1864 engagement featured a Union force integrated at the operational level (though not, of course, within regiments). Black and white units fought at Olustee with varied degrees of success. They respected one another according to that success. Gallman argues that the variable that mattered most on the battlefield was not color, by this point in the War, but experience. The famed 54th Massachusetts, by 1864, was a veteran unit that stood its ground with tenacity, serving as a model for white and black comrades alike.

A number of other pieces in the book are more general and less argumentative. Though all are well-crafted, some of them have merited books in their own right, and some of them rehearse the arguments of those books, whether the author's or someone else's. Drew Gilpin Faust has a piece on burying the war dead which is tributary to the material of her recent book This Republic of Suffering. Gary Gallagher surveys Lost Cause ideas in Hollywood films from Birth of a Nation to Cold Mountain, a topic done much more thoroughly by Bruce Chadwick in The Reel Civil War (2001), even though Gallagher extends the treatment to a couple of more recent movies. Carol Reardon's documentation of Georgian ambivalence and mutability on the subject of William T. Sherman is valuable for its range of citations, but the essay is pretty much a camp follower in the wake of Caudill & Ashdown's recent Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory.

But I learned things from even the more derivative pieces in Wars within a War, and found many avenues to further study. The War retains its immediacy and its importance, both in popular myth and in the thinking of the best historians. That thinking is on salient display in Waugh & Gallagher's volume.

Waugh, Joan, and Gary W. Gallagher. Wars within a War: Controversy and conflict over the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. [Civil War America]