Tuesday, July 22, 2014


[The Homefront in Civil War Missouri by James W. Erwin (The History Press, 2014). Softcover, illustrations, bibliography, index. 124 pp. ISBN:978-1-62619-433-5 $19.99]

Meritable Missouri Civil War titles operating outside the dominant guerrilla conflict theme are always welcome. Of course, James Erwin's The Homefront in Civil War Missouri touches freely upon the subject, given the inextricable links, but the main thrust is directed elsewhere, at how civilians both impacted and were impacted by the war.

Why Missouri was such a prize coveted by both sides is clear from the first chapter, which discusses the state's rapid population, infrastructure, and economic expansion during the decades preceding the war. Other early chapters summarize how politicians and military commanders handled (and mishandled) issues surrounding the upholding of cherished civil freedoms and the management of the institution of slavery during mass insurrection without alienating the large pro-Union segment of the population. The importance of St. Louis as military base and center of gunboat construction is also discussed.

Succeeding sections relate the personal experiences of citizens during the pivotal year of 1862 (when guerrillas and their counterguerrilla opponents first began to range far and wide, with often tragic consequences for local civilians), attempts by Union military authorities to curtail religious expression, how women and children both participated in and were victimized by the war, and the growth of the refugee crisis during the middle years. Erwin also traces the formation and expansion of the Western Sanitary Commission from its Missouri origins, as the well funded organization assumed a great deal of responsibility for serving wounded and sick soldiers as well as supporting freedmen, orphans, and other refugee concerns. Emancipation, the raising of black troops in the state, and the new state constitution are covered in the final chapter.

The author is certainly correct that entire volumes could easily be devoted to the substance of each chapter. While the range of topics addressed in Homefront is not exhaustive, Erwin has the most important bases covered. Hints of the type of graphic home violence so frighteningly displayed within works like Michael Fellman's classic Inside War are present, but the book, perhaps in polite consideration of a more general target audience, might be a bit too understated in conveying the sheer terror of what it was like to be a civilian man, woman, or child residing in those counties (and there were many) most directly affected by the guerrilla conflict.

The Homefront in Civil War Missouri possesses most of the characteristics of popular narrative history, including an emphasis on personalized storytelling. There's no body of original archival research, the bibliography instead populated with well known published sources. Source notes are absent but those familiar with the literature will recognize an able synthesis. In terms of the readership that will benefit the most from Erwin's study, those deeply engaged with the relevant scholarship will find no surprises but the uninitiated will be treated to a well crafted and sufficiently comprehensive introduction to Missouri's bewilderingly complicated Civil War homefront.

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