Amy Sopcak-Joseph on “Rethinking the Warfront during the American Civil War”

Atlanta ShermanWe are happy to have Amy Sopcak-Joseph writing for us this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  Amy is a Ph.D candidate in early American history and gender history at the University of Connecticut.  She is writing her dissertation Godey’s Lady Book and serves as the co-liaison from the Society for the History of Authorship, Readership, and Publishing to the AHA.

Here is Amy’s first dispatch.–JF

Greetings from Atlanta!  

Much of my first day of the conference has revolved around logistics: early am flight and a layover and navigating the labyrinthine hotels.  I arrived with enough time to attend one late afternoon session, and it was well worth it!  The papers of Session 33, “Household War: Rethinking the Warfront during the American Civil War,” sparked a lively discussion about the ways in which the household was essential to warfare.

LeeAnn Whites’ paper, “Mothers and Their Soldier Sons: The Logistical Significance of the Domestic Line of Supply,” re-examined soldiers’ letters to their families and paired them with the letters they received from home.  Whites argued that letters (and packages) from home constituted an “emotional supply line” akin to the military supply line – letters supplied joy when they were plentiful and misery when they were scarce.  More importantly, women’s letters and packages provided a virtual form of the nurturing women usually did at home, overseeing their families’ diets and clothing needs.  Civil War soldiers, it is commonly known, didn’t enjoy the most diverse diet and sanitation wasn’t necessarily great which led to…. intestinal distress  She focused on two collections of letters from mothers to their sons, but the letters of wives to their husbands fulfilled the same role.  George Melish, an 18-year-old Union soldier from Vermont, received 160 letters from his mother.  He also received butter, cakes, pickles, stamps, and money, all sent because George had requested many of the items from home.  Whites pointed out that the Melish family had the means to purchase and send him all of these items, which likely supplemented his diet and kept up his spirits.  In comparison, Confederate soldier Rob Lowry often detailed his poor rations and the tattered state of his clothes to his mother, but he often told her not to further strain family finances to send him goods.  Lowry’s mother eventually had four sons in the army, and she didn’t have much money to begin with.  Whites’ ultimate point was not that Confederate families couldn’t afford to send provisions while Union families could.  Rather it was that the letters show that mothers wanted to nurture their sons by sending provisions whenever they could.  It was a war of the household to keep the men alive.

Lisa Tendrich Frank’s “‘To the Mattresses”: The Union Assault on Southern Households as Battle Strategy” focused on General Sherman’s Special Field Order 67 that called for the “evacuation” of civilians Atlanta. Sherman viewed households as a source of material and emotional support for soldiers, so he waged war on those households as a military strategy.  His goal was to cause instability through forcing civilians out of their homes, because refugees would be more concerned with their own day-to-day concerns than with aiding soldiers.  Scholars have emphasized the paternalistic rhetoric, that “evacuation” made it seem like the Special Field Order was intended to help civilians.  Frank argued that Sherman clearly saw households as enemies and he described them as hostile, like cornered animals – ultimately people are combatants regardless of sex.  Sherman’s decision to evict them from the city was a strategic move.  Women’s roles in the war warranted their eviction from the city.  Southern women supported the war from the beginning, so they must deal with its reality.

In Margaret M. Storey’s “‘Never Has Anything Been More Deserved’: Union Women and Hard War Tactics in the Western Theatre,” Union men and women worked to re-establish middle-class households among the rebel ruins in the west.  One of the privileges that Union officers enjoyed was that they could bring their wives and children to the front with them.  While it might defy logic to us now, their wives and children did indeed join them and Storey argued that this should be seen as part of military strategy.  The officers’ wives depicted Secesh women as disloyal and not respectable.  By occupying territories with their husbands, they replicated the middle-class lifestyle that they had enjoyed in the east – sometimes in the very houses that Confederates had abandoned.  One of Storey’s poignant examples was that of General McPherson’s Vicksburg ball in honor of the officers’ wives.  Men who had destroyed the households of their enemies in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys then celebrated domesticity.  This paper also sparked discussion of Sherman’s and Grant’s differing views of whether officers should even be able to have their wives with them.  Someone mentioned a forthcoming book, Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives, by Candice Shy Hooper, that I’ll be adding to my must-read list.  It’s due out in May 2016.

This was a great panel to kick off #AHA16 with – the papers were naturally in conversation with each other, all of them were well crafted and interesting, and they generated a number of comments and questions. Together, the papers highlighted the various ways that the distinction between homefront and warfront disappeared during the Civil War.

Looking forward to more thought-provoking panels tomorrow!