Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of Baker - "THE SACRED CAUSE OF UNION: Iowa in the Civil War"

[The Sacred Cause of Union: Iowa in the Civil War by Thomas R. Baker (University of Iowa Press, 2016). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:259/293. ISBN:978-1-60938-435-7. $27.50]

Iowa was the first state in what author Thomas Baker calls the "New West" (i.e. the states and territories carved up by 1860 from the vast Louisiana Purchase) to prohibit slavery, and his book The Sacred Cause of Union argues that Iowa also forged a distinctive military and political Civil War legacy richly deserving of wider appreciation. Baker's case is difficult to dispute.

Though Iowa's Civil War volunteers were not much different than their comrades from other northern states in that their primary enlistment motivation was to punish the secessionists and preserve the Union, their state's shared border with Missouri and Nebraska meant that Iowans had a front row seat to the mid-1850s Kansas violence that radicalized the slavery politics of many U.S. citizens. While the broad overview nature of Baker's book also meant that the author could not explore Iowa's prewar role as a haven for escaped slaves and its connections with abolitionist militants in as much depth as, for example, Lowell Soike's recent study Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War (2014) did, The Sacred Cause of Union does touch upon those and other antebellum antislavery actions as early signs pointing toward a rapid Republican ascendancy in state politics during the war.

The book documents at some length the Hawkeye State's enthusiastic and full response to the federal government's constant and insistent calls for army volunteers. Even though non-urbanized frontier states like Iowa did not possess a superabundance of labor, young men needed on their family farms nevertheless flocked to the army in 1861 (during both the initial 90-day and later 3-year enlistment waves). The state quotas of nearly every War Department manpower levy from 1862 onward also tended to be quickly filled in Iowa. Conscription was unpopular throughout the North, and Iowa was fortunate that its sustained volunteering meant that, when federal demands finally exceeded supply in 1864, only a few men needed to be drafted. According to Baker, Iowa was remarkable for its peaceful bipartisan acceptance of federal draft policy, a pacific stance in marked contrast to the violent reactions to conscription that occurred in New York City or in the timber counties of western Pennsylvania. The author credits much of the lack of civil unrest to the state's Peace Democrats for not organizing opposition to conscription, though his case is weakened by a statement later in the book that two draft officials were killed in one county. How isolated that type of incident truly was is not examined further.

The lion's share of credit for successfully creating and sustaining the massive Union volunteer army that won the Civil War has generally gone to the Lincoln administration, but there is a growing literature that seeks to better appreciate the work of the states. It was the North's immense good fortune to possess a group of extremely talented state governors whose dedication to winning the war matched that of the nation's chief executive. While Iowa governor Samuel Kirkwood is not often placed in the same meritorious category occupied by fellow Republican state chief executives Oliver Morton, Richard Yates, John Andrew, Andrew Curtin, and others, Baker effectively argues in the book that Kirkwood should rank among the best of the North's war governors.

How "radical" Iowa became during the Civil War is one of the book's major themes. The study's survey of Iowa political trends seems to indicate that the war radicalized the Hawkeye electorate much more quickly and widely than it did the voters of other western states (though the author is careful not to overstate the matter). In contrast with other states across the West, the triumvirate of war weariness, conscription, and emancipation did not significantly revitalize the Democratic political opposition in Iowa. When Republican majorities suffered crushing losses across the nation during the fall midterm elections in 1862, all six Iowa congressional races went against the Democrats. However, as Baker takes great pains to show, that isn't to say that pro-emancipation Iowans suddenly became friendly to the presence of black refugees in their communities or warmed to the idea of granting ex-slaves voting rights and the full privileges of citizenship. Those changes would come later in the decade after a series of political advances and retreats.

Much of the book is comprised of a thorough and often fascinating (and even sometimes surprising) accounting of the specific contributions of Iowa regiments to the many campaigns fought in the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters. Baker appropriately grants Iowa regiments a great deal of credit for securing Missouri in 1861-62, a vital job which needed to be done before any Union advances into the Confederate heartland could be contemplated. The narrative can be a bit over congratulatory at times and rating the contributions of single states among massive combined efforts is surely almost hopelessly subjective, but Baker does very compellingly document the uncanny knack that so many Iowa officers and regiments had for being at the right place at the right time during many pivotal battles. His point that Crocker's Iowa Brigade deserves wider recognition as one of the best Union fighting brigades is similarly forceful.

As a way to represent the human range of the Iowa Civil War experience on a more intimate level, Baker selected six individuals [Cyrus Carpenter, Ferdinand Dunham, Charles Musser, Simeon Stevens, Alexander Clark, and Annie Wittenmyer] from different parts of the state to follow throughout the book. It is a mostly fruitful exercise, though the soldiers in the group rather blend together over time and their writings seem a bit underutilized in the military narrative. For the sake of greater diversity, it might also have been more interesting to have included a Peace Democrat in the group. Of the six, Wittenmyer and Clark stand out the most. Wittenmyer was a prominent aid society organizer who tirelessly worked to provide Iowa soldiers with food, clothing, supplies, and medicine, all the while fighting powerful internal and external forces that sought to abolish state organizations by merging them with the United State Sanitary Commission. Clark was a successful black businessman who became a leading advocate in the state for African American army enlistment and civil rights.

Thomas Baker's The Sacred Cause of Union admirably addresses the literature's longstanding need for a general study of Iowa's involvement in the Civil War. It is a fine survey history of the military and home front contributions of Iowa citizens to victory, exposing as well the many momentous political and social changes wrought by the conflict. Recommended.

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