Friday, March 23, 2007

Jabour reviews Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America

Amy Murrell Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) is reviewed on HCivWar by Anya Jabour, Department of History, University of Montana. Jabour begins:
Amy Murrell Taylor's study of the image and reality of divided families in Civil War America deals with profound questions: the sources and meaning of "loyalty," the connections between "public" and "private," and the knotty problem of "reconciliation." At the same time, Taylor deals with ordinary people confronting everyday concerns: generational tension, romantic conflict, and uncertain communication. This represents a pathbreaking academic study of the tremendously popular notion of a civil war that pitted "brother against brother." Taylor brings together literary images of "a house divided" and careful case studies of 166 white families in the border region whose gendered, generational, and racial divisions were cast into sharp relief--and often exacerbated--by opposing viewpoints on slavery, secession, and civil war. The end result is an extended meditation on the powerful metaphor--and the painful reality--of divided families during the American Civil War.

The family has long served as a metaphor for the nation. During the American Civil War, the image of the divided family became a metonym for a nation at war. Both in popular rhetoric about "a house divided" and in military policies that restricted the movement of family members (and even their letters) across sectional lines, Unionists and Confederates recognized the intimate connection between family relationships and political questions. The Civil War thus forced nineteenth-century Americans to see the distinction between the "private" sphere of the family and the "public" sphere of politics for what it was: a cultural construction rather than a lived reality. But, at the same time, Taylor argues, the Civil War only increased Americans' need to believe in this artificial dichotomy. Divided families, in particular, tried desperately to reify and reinforce the boundaries that separated private (familial) from public (political) matters. This served both practical and ideological purposes. By denying the connections between familial love and political loyalties, members of divided families defended their desire (and, in the case of "flag of truce" letters, increased their ability) to maintain kinship ties across military borders. In addition, as Taylor shows, casting political differences in "the more familiar lens of family conflict" (p. 5) both eased the divisions of the war years and enabled the reconciliations of the postwar era. By viewing secession and war in terms of generational and gendered conflict, white Americans in the Civil War era managed to contain the explosive political divisions of the age, overlook the importance of race, and ignore both the presence of African Americans and the issue of slavery.
For the rest, click here.