As we do with each issue, below you will find the editor’s note for our forthcoming September 2017 issue. You can access these articles by subscribing to the journal, or through a Project Muse subscription.
The essays in this volume should inspire us to reconsider how we measure the changes wrought by the Civil War. Two essays highlight how the postwar South remained littered with traps that ensnared freed people and poor whites in poverty and dependency. Confederate widows, too, were directed to new roles that looked a good deal like the old ones–although in their case, there were benefits to accepting them. We begin with an essay that suggests a new way to mark one critical change the war set in motion.
Mark Noll uncovers a robust criticism offered by American Catholics of Protestants, whose focus on an individual relationship with and interpretation of the scriptures tore at the social fabric and propelled the country into civil war. By contrast, Catholic approach to scripture, critics insisted, offered a “surer guide for the nation’s future,” because among other things, it was nurtured and guided by proper authority. This critique, launched in the Catholic press early in the war, put church spokesmen in a good position to exploit the chorus of postwar critics who sought to condemn Protestant fanaticism for nearly destroying the nation during the war. And, Noll suggests, this may in part account for the postwar move toward religious pluralism.
While the Catholic Church engaged in the work of critiquing the causes of the war, Confederate widows were enlisted to the work of memorialization through a new type of condolence letter that came into wide usage during the war. “Notification letters,” as Ashley Mays refers to them, were distinct in form and substance from condolence letters, for whereas the latter offered instruction about how widows should grieve, the former enlisted widows to the work of caretaking their husbands’ memories. Both forms could comfort and coerce, at the same time, opening up new questions about what Drew Faust once described as a “uniformed sorority of grief.” Did loss bring Confederate women together?
Erin Mauldin’s essay examines catastrophic ecological changes underway in the postwar South and pinpoints their human causes. Mauldin argues that to understand the New South’s economic stagnation, we must look carefully at how postwar tenancy set in motion changes to the land, such as erosion and the depletion of critical nutrients from soil. These changes exacerbated the economic dislocations suffered by poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers and fed a growing tide of indebtedness and bankruptcy. Mauldin’s essay explores the deep irony that, in seeking to negotiate the terms of their post war labor contracts, freed people unintentionally helped to set in motion ecological changes that would threaten their economic autonomy.
Dale Kretz uncovers a similar irony in his study of USCT pension files. When applying for pensions, former slaves were asked to prove that their injury or disability—to be qualified for pensions, applicants had to prove they were disabled—did not result from their time in slavery, that upon enlistment, they were in “perfect health.” This stipulation required formers slaves to assist federal agents in covering up the serious health consequences of slavery, and, as Kretz suggests, undercut simultaneous efforts to pass an ambitious slavery reparations law. As USCT veterans filled out forms and stood for health examinations, then, they unwittingly participated in what Kretz calls “national reconciliation struggles writ small.”
Lorien Foote’s review essay revisits historians’ use of the term “home front,” which is often invoked as a way to underscore the blurring of lines between combatants and noncombatants but which Foote suggests reproduces the same binary it seeks to dismantle. In its place, Foote proposes a number of alternatives, including “a people’s war,” “house hold war,” or more simply, “insurrection.” The benefits of this new vocabulary are clear when Foote takes account of a number of recent studies of slave resistance and guerilla warfare. We need not choose one from the alternative list she provides, but in trying them out, Foote suggests, we might get “a more accurate picture of the kind of war southerners confronted.”