Book Review: Southern Families At War

Southern Families At War:  Loyalty And Conflict In The Civil War South, edited by Catherine Clinton

When people think of a great deal of contemporary writing about warfare to involve dubious progressive politics and an excessive concern with gender issues and hyphenated Americans, this is precisely the sort of book they are talking about.  There are large groups of people who are interested in the Civil War who are not going to find this book very interesting or worthwhile at all, and this book clearly belongs in the context of books about the relationship between war and society within Civil War America, particularly the South [1].  This book is not written about someone who wants to think about the experience of soldiers in battle, but rather about someone who wants to think about the issues of the home front, concerns about loyalty and about the well-being of often forgotten and neglected groups.  This is a book written for an unusual niche audience, those who are somewhat progressive in terms of politics but still would rather read the history of the South rather than the history of the Union.  I must admit that I am somewhat alienated to both areas of interest from these authors, but it makes for an interesting read nonetheless.

In about 250 pages a variety of writers address the subject of the Confederate home front in a dozen essays.  The essays themselves are varied in terms of their content and approach.  Essays deal, in order, with the following subjects:  efforts from freed slaves to reunite with lost kin, the relationship between black families and the state in Civil War Virginia, the persistence of slave marriage customs from black Civil War veterans, appeals for protection from Southern families, the experience of the Middleton family during the Civil War, which split them apart, courtship and marriage in Civil War Richmond, Confederate widowhood in Virginia, the experience of the Fains of Tennessee, the transformation of gender relations in an Alabama family, the conversion of black and white Jews in the Civil War south, the question of conscience for Germans in Texas, and views of patriarchy in heaven among Southerners.  This is a mixed collection of essays.  Where the essays work well, they are seeking to understand what happened in Southern families during and after the Civil War, and where the essays fail they are trying to force a political worldview on the reader.

It is hard to get a good feel for what can be taken out of this book productively.  As someone who is more than usually sensitive to the political agenda of much of this writing, I found myself greatly offended by the way the authors at times appeared to be hunting for justification for their own viewpoints, viewpoints I strongly disagree with.  At other times, though, this book really shined in seeking to provide the opportunity for people to speak for themselves, to let their voices be heard.  Some of the essays here make a strong case for the fact that people often have sensible reasons for operating as they do–this is especially true in the poignant essay about the search for lost relatives among blacks after the Civil War.  This essay, and a few others like it, show that this could have been a great book.  As it is, it is certainly of strongly mixed quality, but there is enough promise here to make the reader almost a bit sad that it was not a better book.  Wasted potential shows itself all over this book, a reminder that the pitfalls of contemporary politics make a great many books more difficult to enjoy reading than ought to be the case.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Southern Families At War

  1. Pingback: Book Review: As Southern As It Gets | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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