Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ramold: "ACROSS THE DIVIDE: Union Soldiers View the Northern Home Front"

[Across the Divide: Union Soldiers View the Northern Home Front by Steven J. Ramold (New York University Press, 2013). Hardcover, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN:978-0-8147-2919-9. Pp. 230. $49]

During the early months of the Civil War, citizen-soldier attitudes toward the war and how it should be fought closely matched those of their civilian counterparts. However, as the war dragged on with no end in sight, significant cracks in the fa├žade of military-home front solidarity appeared. It is this oft contentious relationship between two fronts of a common war that is the subject of Steven Ramold’s Across the Divide.

Perhaps the most immediate issue that arose was a new gender dynamic. Male heads of household, used to the roles of provider and decision-maker, now found themselves physically and authoritatively separated from home. With spotty communications and army pay often 6-9 months in arrears, feelings of powerlessness and failure were common. Fulfilling the traditional male position in society did not work long distance and wives were forced to pick up the slack. The book offers numerous examples of how this abrupt hierarchical shift in homes across the North led to frustration on both sides of the “divide”.

Another source of friction between soldiers and the home front was emancipation. Insulated civilians often kept their antebellum views of slavery, but many soldiers at the front, exposed directly to the institution’s horrors and having personal contact with helpful slaves, quickly moved to support emancipation as war aim and/or moral necessity. Obviously, soldier attitudes ran the entire gamut between abolitionist and anti-abolitionist, but according to Ramold there existed a vast middle ground of opinion (which he terms the emancipationist view) that came to recognize the need to end slavery but at the same time was unwilling to grant ex-slaves the rights of full citizenship. The book suggests, with good evidence within its pages and elsewhere, that most soldiers came to believe from mid-war onward that civilians who did not at least support the emancipationist viewpoint to be de facto Confederate sympathizers.

Conscription was another key source of conflict. The vast majority of soldiers supported the draft, but the home front was deeply, and often violently, divided on the subject. Many groups, chief among them anti-war Democrats, opposed the draft on legal and moral grounds. Soldiers, on the other hand, had no sympathy for those back home unwilling to join the fight. Ramold documents several draft riots, finding that soldiers restoring order in the rear expressed little reluctance toward firing live rounds into demonstrators. The author is persuasive in arguing that conscription as implemented by the North could be thought of as a policy blunder. In return for only a small manpower increase, the relationship and trust between the populace and the federal government was gravely harmed at a vital time in the prosecution of the war. On the other side of the coin, the fact that large numbers of men enlisted under the threat of conscription is undervalued in this argument.

The anti-war movement in the North rivaled conscription in terms of creating soldier-civilian animosity. The evidence does seem to suggest that relatively few soldiers bothered differentiating between War Democrats, Peace Democrats, and the most extreme form of the latter – the “Copperheads," instead viewing all Democrats as enemies. Many on the home front felt the same way, and Republicans exploited this distorted perception of reality by exaggerating for their own partisan gain the influences of Copperheads and secret societies like the Knights of the Golden Circle. Though the belief that Copperheads comprised a serious threat to the Union war effort has received something of an upsurge in scholarly support recently (most popularly expressed in the work of Jennifer Weber), Ramold holds to the more traditional view of the anti-war movement as a “decentralized and ineffective political force” (pg. 142).

The final major source of division examined in the book is the 1864 election, with the soldiers as a whole determined to believe it the duty of everyone to support Lincoln’s reelection. To them, anything else would render the sacrifice of the preceding four years meaningless.

The most transparent flaw in the book is the high number of typos, but the methodology of the project is also not really designed to collect the depth and kind of evidence that might impart inescapable answers to big questions. While readers familiar with the publications referenced in the notes will agree with many aspects of Ramold's synthesis, it is difficult to dismiss the essentially anecdotal nature of the first-hand evidence presented in the form of individual quotations, with most undoubtedly chosen for their pithiness. Readers should be reminded that this is not a representative sample of northern opinion organized on the scale or statistical significance of, for example, the database created by Joseph Glatthaar for his celebrated social history of the Army of Northern Virginia. Nevertheless, Across the Divide is a useful book that powerfully outlines the multitude of societal issues behind northern military-civilian disharmony during the Civil War, with conclusions that may not convince all readers but at least are reasonable interpretations of the existing literature.

[orig. version appeared in On Point magazine]


  1. Drew: This appears to bear a resemblance to his generally well-done book on discipline in the Union armies, Baring the Iron Hand, which also comes across as largely anecdotal but does make use of statistically reliable sampling. Although from a different publisher, that book also has a fair number of typos but is nonetheless worthwhile.

    1. Hi John,
      Yes, Baring the Iron Hand used a lot of primary source material while Across the Divide is primarily an interpretive survey. Also, where Baring tended to ramble all over the place, this work is very tight and stylistically improved.


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