Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Judith Giesberg's "Army at Home"

Judith Giesberg is assistant professor of history at Villanova University and author of Civil War Sisterhood: The United States Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front the reader of will come to know Charlotte Brown, a woman whose brave stand against San Francisco’s streetcar segregation helped to end the practice. When Charlotte Brown ignored company policy and insisted on riding the city’s streetcars alongside white passengers, she helped to inspire a local movement to reverse the racist and humiliating policies that excluded black passengers from riding inside cars carrying white passengers. Brown even managed to capture – if only briefly -- the attention and imagination of Washington lawmakers, when Senator Charles Sumner referred to Charlotte Brown’s court case in his arguments in support of legislation that would have integrated streetcars in the nation’s capital. Most astounding of all, Charlotte Brown was making her stand in 1863 – almost 100 years before Rosa Parks would fight the same battle, all over again!

Page 99 sets the stage for the legal battle Brown fought against the streetcar company that ejected her. It lets readers know that Charlotte Brown was willing to stand up not only to white San Franciscans’ racism but also to pleas for patience and conciliation from the black community:

There was much to celebrate in the 1863 campaign to overturn California’s discriminatory court testimony law, but the editors of the Pacific Appeal advised African American readers to be “patient and conciliating” and to avoid “all causes of passionate resentment” from whites. Above all, the editors cautioned against readers “resorting to the law,” for not “every offence that may be committed against us is altogether in consequence of our color.” Black elites did not want to jeopardize their business connections with the white community with a rush to litigate; such a strategy could do more harm to the cause of civil rights than good.

As a member of an activist family, Charlotte Brown was aware of her new legal status. Charlotte’s father, James, was active in California’s black convention movement which had led the testimony law campaign.

This is a good spot to reflect on the meaning of the book, for in Charlotte Brown’s story – and that of the many other women highlighted in the book – the reader is encouraged to rethink what s/he thinks of as the northern home front. Whereas most histories of the Civil War treat the battlefield and the home front as separate issues, in particular when it comes to the North, Army at Home looks at how the home became a battlefield of its own – how working-class women struggled to make ends meet, how they worked in munitions factories, sewed uniforms, and pieced together bits of aid to support themselves while the men were gone. And, it tells the stories of women who sought to make meaning of the war at home, like when Charlotte Brown – and other women of color in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati – decided that segregation was a civil rights issue directly related to the purpose of the war or when white women in New York City, Boston, and Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal communities decided that emancipation was not a worthy wartime goal and attacked draft marshals.

But maybe the best example of the war coming home to northern women is in the last chapter of Army at Home, when the reader follows women as they make sad journeys onto quieted battlefields to retrieve the bodies of loved ones and to bring them home for burial.

I hope as readers learn about Charlotte Brown and the other women in Army at Home they will look at the history of the Civil War with fresh eyes. Brown’s story reminds us that the civil rights movement has a long(er) history, one that women played key roles in from the beginning. The stories of the other women featured in the book should remind readers to look beyond the battlefield to the home front when we consider war’s consequences – or, better yet, to see the home front as a battlefield of its own. For, as one Civil War American put it, there is another army that must be sustained and supported and that is the army at home -- the relatives of service men (and now women) and the many civilians who do the work of war at home.
Learn more about Army at Home at the publisher's website.

Visit Judith Giesberg's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue