Divided Family in Civil War America

Divided Family in Civil War America, by Amy Murrell Taylor
University of North Carolina Press.

Description from publisher:

The Civil War has long been described as a war pitting “brother against brother.” The divided family is an enduring metaphor for the divided nation, but it also accurately reflects the reality of America’s bloodiest war. Connecting the metaphor to the real experiences of families whose households were split by conflicting opinions about the war, Amy Murrell Taylor provides a social and cultural history of the divided family in Civil War America.

In hundreds of border state households, brothers–and sisters–really did fight one another, while fathers and sons argued over secession and husbands and wives struggled with opposing national loyalties. Even enslaved men and women found themselves divided over how to respond to the war. Taylor studies letters, diaries, newspapers, and government documents to understand how families coped with the unprecedented intrusion of war into their private lives. Family divisions inflamed the national crisis while simultaneously embodying it on a small scale–something noticed by writers of popular fiction and political rhetoric, who drew explicit connections between the ordeal of divided families and that of the nation. Weaving together an analysis of this popular imagery with the experiences of real families, Taylor demonstrates how the effects of the Civil War went far beyond the battlefield to penetrate many facets of everyday life.

About the author
Amy Murrell Taylor is assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany.
From the Introduction of the book:

Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858 that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” His words, prophetic of the war that was to come three years later, continue to resonate today. That phrase—just one part of a much larger address—has become one of Lincoln’s most recognizable contributions to our American political vocabulary. But those words were not unique to the nineteenth-century president. The image of a “house divided,” or a family in conflict, was a timeless one that drew on a long tradition in literature and political thought. From the Bible to Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s works to the political theories of John Locke, the family has offered a common language for understanding the complexities of human relationships. For Lincoln, the family provided a rhetorical shorthand, allowing him in just six words to convey what slavery might do to the relationship between Northern and Southern citizens.

Lincoln was not alone in describing a nation in family terms. Historians across the globe have uncovered numerous moments in which family language and metaphor figured centrally in the imagining of nations—particularly nations in conflict. We can see this in the French Revolution, Russian propaganda during World War I, and the Cold War, to name a few examples. The widespread use of the family image raises important questions about national identity—where it comes from, how it is defined, and how attachments to family and nation coexist and reinforce one another. In the United States we can trace the roots of the family metaphor at least to the Revolution, as colonists imagined themselves as children of a tyrannical British father. The Civil War only amplified this association of nation and family with an outpouring of speeches and stories that joined Lincoln in comparing the nation to a divided house. Even today, in movies, Web sites, children’s literature, and John Jakes novels, we continue to see the warring nation as if it were a quarreling family—or a war of “brother against brother.” It has become a cliché, easily recognizable and frequently invoked. Less understood is why this image has taken root in American culture.

This book offers the first sustained historical study of the divided family in the American Civil War. It takes what we often consider to be just rhetoric or common sense and finds within this image something more meaningful for those who lived through the war. It was meaningful, on a profound level, because it was real. Thousands of families did divide in what was widely considered to be a shocking dimension of the Civil War. Brothers did fight brothers; even Abraham Lincoln had relatives in the Confederate army. The image of the divided family therefore captured something tangible and authentic about the experience of war. But, on another level, it offered to Civil War Americans a framework for making sense of new and unprecedented problems. How could a country that was once one nation be carved into two? How could fellow citizens kill one another? Americans looked to the vocabulary of family—deference and authority, affection and conflict—for guidance in framing those difficult questions. This book follows the interplay of these two levels—experience and language—to provide a social and cultural history of the divided family in Civil War America.

We need not reach far into the vast library of Civil War history to find evidence of divided families. The idea that two brothers, or a father and son, or a husband and wife could assume opposing stances in the war has both captivated and perplexed scholars, writers of fiction, and filmmakers since the first shots were fired over Fort Sumter. Family division has become one of the “curiosities” of the war, filling out war narratives with colorful images and dramatic flourishes. Stories of divided families almost always appear in some form in anecdote books, a staple of Civil War popular culture, under titles such as “Love and Treason” and “‘Brother against Brother’ Was Real. Biographies of some of the most prominent Civil War political and military leaders rarely fail to mention a personal connection to the enemy side. Many central figures of that era were split from a family member, including Confederates Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and their Union-sympathizing sisters, and U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden and his Confederate son. Indeed, the more one looks for evidence of divided families in the war, the more numerous they appear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s