Looking at the Civil War With New Eyes

Author Joan Cashin’s two recent books  
November 6, 2018 Updated: November 9, 2018

This particular Veterans Day offers a time to reflect on another era when our nation was divided: the Civil War.

Civil War buff Jon Roll and I wondered about the effects of the Civil War on the civilians at the time, so we chose two recent books by Joan E. Cashin to review: her “War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War” and her more recent book, “War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era.”

Cashin, a history professor at Ohio State University, is interested in the lived experiences of the American people, from all backgrounds, all over the United States.

‘War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War’

There’s a recent trend among scholars, Cashin said in a phone interview, to write on how war affects the communities surrounding it. “War Stuff” deals extensively with the environmental history of the wartime South, from many different angles. It offers rich personal details to add a human framework to the subject, with parts of the book becoming so vivid in the reader’s mind that it feels like watching a television miniseries.

One of the most surprising things in this book is how both armies, North and South, devastated the countryside of the South and brought war directly to the Southern civilian population. Even more surprising was that the Southern troops were equally as bad in destroying property, wrecking farms, and pillaging from the Southerners.

These crimes happened throughout the duration of the war, not just toward the end. Sherman’s March to the Sea may be considered the climax of the war’s destruction, but in reality, it was only a continuation of the brutality that had already begun long before.

The book makes clear that the war’s plunder and destruction severely damaged the human and material resources of the Southern whites and led to all kinds of political, economic, and social problems. As such, the book adds greatly to understanding the depth of the tragedy of that war.

War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War’
Joan E. Cashin
Cambridge University Press
270 pages, paperback $24.99

 

War Matters edited by Joan Cashin
“War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era,” edited by Joan Cashin.

‘War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era’

“War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era” takes a different tack. It examines the stuff surrounding the war: the things people use, consume, create, or trade. These things helped shape the people and make them who they were, and so can provide us with insight into nonmaterial culture: the ideas, beliefs, habits, and values of a people.

“War Matters” is a collection of essays on material culture, edited by Cashin, describing material objects through which individuals made sense of their world. The more we understand the material culture, the more we understand the people of the Civil War era, she explained in the interview.

In her own essay in the book, Cashin remarks that people want objects in order “to make permanent the fleeting nature of experience” and to “establish dominion over time itself.”

Noteworthy Objects of the Past

Interestingly, Revolutionary War artifacts were valuable during the Civil War period, because they showed a connection to great figures of the past. Both armies believed they were the true heirs of the American Revolution.

The surviving Bibles from the period were relatively rare but fascinated those of the era. Since Bibles were often carried in soldiers’ pockets, there are many tales of them saving lives when pierced by minié balls, grapeshot, and shrapnel.

Wartime injuries were not the only scourge at the time. During 1863–64, smallpox had become epidemic throughout the South. Medical vaccination kits reveal the many therapies used during the course of the disease.

With these and many other objects, as well as landscapes, houses, and documents, Cashin and the book’s contributors add another layer of understanding to this chapter of humanity.

‘War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era’
Editor: Joan Cashin
The University of North Carolina Press
280 pages, paperback $29.95

Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher with 45 years’ experience teaching children. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at lwiegenfeld@aol.com

Jon Roll is a retired Collections Management Specialist with 13 years’ experience at the Harvard University Art Museums. Jon is a current member of the Civil War Round Table of the Merrimack and has given lectures there. He can be reached for comments or suggestions at njroll49@yahoo.com 

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