Home Front: Life in the Civil War North
By Peter John Brownlee, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene and Scott Manning Stevens; University of Chicago Press 2013, $35
A success story from the Civil War sesquicentennial has been the emergence of a number of good new books on nontraditional subjects, such as the environment, emerging technologies, women and minority groups, fine art and popular culture. Add to this list Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North, an elegantly produced and eloquently written interdisciplinary analysis of the war as seen by Northerners who lived through it.
Home Front is a companion volume to a collaborative exhibition organized by Chicago’s Newberry Library and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Adam Goodheart’s brief but enlightening introduction clearly explains the importance of popular visual culture (cartoons, newspaper illustrations, lithographs, sheet music, photographs, etc.) in maintaining Northern support for a war more horrific than contemporaries ever imagined.
Experts in fields other than Civil War history make valuable contributions in this book. Sarah Burns, an art history professor, and Daniel Greene, vice president of research at the Newberry Library, intend the essays as “a platform for fresh thinking and revelatory narratives of the trials and traumas that defined and transformed the lives of ordinary Americans during those momentous years.” In this they succeed, though the language used to analyze the symbolism and metaphor in paintings and other visual artifacts may put off those who prefer their history filled with blood-and-thunder.
Peter John Brownlee uses visual representations of cotton, commodities and contrabands as depicted in paintings, maps and newspaper illustrations to show how concepts of African Americans changed and matured during the war. They began to be portrayed as human beings who could contribute to the Union war effort, not just the cause of the war and in need of liberation. In his essay on Native Americans, Scott Manning Stevens reminds us that their home front was often a battlefront. Exigencies of war brought profound changes in the government’s Indian policy, mostly to the detriment of the native population.