Monday, May 14, 2018

Author Q&A - Timothy Roberts and "'This Infernal War'": The Civil War Letters of William and Jane Standard"

Timothy Mason Roberts is a history professor at Western Illinois University and the author or editor of two studies focused on American exceptionalism. The recently published "This Infernal War": The Civil War Letters of William and Jane Standard (Kent State UP, 2018) is his first Civil War book project and is the subject of this interview.

DW: Interpreting the nature of the "Copperhead" opposition in the North and assessing the threat these dissenters posed to the Union war effort still engenders a lot of healthy debate. The academic scholarship has certainly changed gears over time, with classic analysis from Frank Klement and much more recent work from Jennifer Weber occupying opposite poles. Where are your own views situated along this spectrum?

TMR: I am closer to Weber to the extent evidence in this book reflects her claim that war resistance flamed across pockets of the rural North and deterred the war effort in those areas until 1864. I don’t think that Peace Democrats nearly took over the Democratic Party, as she argues. The Standards’ correspondence seems to confirm that the fall of Atlanta changed the minds of war skeptics especially from the Northwest, though they did not accept abolitionism.

DW: Can you discuss a handful of titles that you feel are representative of the best scholarship on the northern opposition to the war?

TMR: Mark Neely, Lincoln and the Democrats: the Politics of Opposition in the Civil War – Contrary to Weber, Neely diminishes the significance of Democratic war opposition. His focus on election outcomes of course is sensible, though his argument that the war’s setbacks, not emancipation, caused Republicans’ loss of seats in Congress in 1863 doesn’t work well in downstate Illinois.

Matthew Gallman, Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front – A study of how war literature educated northerners on how to be good citizens through support for the war. This book sharpens the significance of the Standards’ more lowbrow dissent.

Robert Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians – A study of another rural northern area where antiwar dissent raged, though Sandow shows that dissent there was partly fueled by resentment of big lumber business, a force absent in rural Illinois at the time.

DW: Briefly, who were William and Jane Standard?

TMR: William was a 40-year-old former schoolteacher and county sheriff, elected as a Democrat, when he enlisted in 1862. Jane was 34. Both were southern migrants to Illinois. They had three adolescent children when William left home. Jane’s father was a Republican.

DW: Did William Standard explicitly document in his writings his reasons for volunteering, and if so what were they?

TMR: It’s not clear why he enlisted, though I theorize his motives in the book.

DW: What were the chief sources of the Standards’s dissent and when did these antiwar attitudes emerge?

TMR: William expressed frustration generally with military life, especially the military’s slow pay of his wages as a sergeant and his regiment’s tedious assignment through much of 1863 mainly to protect the supply and railroad lines of the Army of the Tennessee. Jane expressed surprise and dismay that he left her without adequately communicating about his various financial obligations. Both decried the Lincoln administration’s increasingly antislavery approach to the war, though William relished the license to plunder southerners’ homes as part of the evolving confiscation policy.

DW: Did the Standards share their concerns (he with his comrades in the regiment and she with her neighbors), and if they did how were their objections received?

TMR: William indicated that others in his company were sympathetic, though rarely above the rank of lieutenant. He noted many officers resigned early in 1863, intimating they did not support the Emancipation Proclamation. He remained in contact with a Democratic newspaper editor at home during the war. Jane was more of a loner. She visited and entertained the families of men with whom William served, but didn’t participate in antiwar activities, and resented local Republicans’ celebration of news of the army’s victories.

DW: Did William ever seriously consider the ultimate act of opposition—desertion?

TMR: Yes, and at Jane’s encouragement. But his musing about this possibility diminished once his unit saw action for the first time at Missionary Ridge and then made no mention again beginning with the Atlanta Campaign.

DW: In the years following the end of the conflict, did the Standards remain unrepentant (for lack of a better word) in their antiwar stances? Was William proud of his service?

TMR: It’s not clear what their postwar attitudes were, because the collection ends in 1865. I surmise they remained staunchly Democratic, though William more likely than Jane remained locally politically active.

DW: Do you think it credible to argue that much of the public and private rhetoric employed by antiwar northerners (particularly when it came to race) is so offensive to modern sensibilities that it leads scholars to discredit the entire movement too readily (the result being a stifling of deeper and wider investigation)?

TMR: Possibly. Civil War scholarship has sometimes conflated the North’s antislavery position during the war with racial enlightenment. The Lincoln film in 2012, I think, startled audiences not only for showing Lincoln as a politician but also for dramatizing how explicitly racist opposition was in the North even to immediately abolishing slavery, let alone establishing black civil rights. Historians of late seem to agree that the South seceded to protect slavery, more than to defend “states’ rights.” But it is less clear to me that many or most northerners both supported the war’s prosecution against the South and opposed slavery.

DW: Finally, where would you like to see studies of northern home front opposition go from here?

TMR: There seems a need to trace letter-writing and newspaper-circulating connections between “bad” soldiers like William Standard and kindred communities back home, to understand how opposition politics functioned and flourished in ways besides electoral contests. There are also opportunities for comparing antiwar areas of the North and the South to identify cross-sectional themes in dissent and in the war’s impact on families that rejected their respective governments’ demands for their patriotism.

DW: Thank you for your time.

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