Sunday, August 9, 2015

J. Matthew Gallman's "Defining Duty in the Civil War"

J. Matthew Gallman is professor of history at the University of Florida and author of Receiving Erin's Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration,1845–1855.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, and reported the following:
Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front asks how civilians in the North came to understand how to behave in the midst of a long and terrible Civil War. The book builds upon a few core observations. First, for the vast majority of ordinary Americans, it was not at all clear how they should act in the midst of this war. How should pro-war northerners balance their essential patriotism and their personal and familial concerns? Second, Americans in this highly literate population had grown accustomed to turning to a wide assortment of published materials – novels, short stories, sermons, cartoons, editorials, songs, etiquette manuals, travel guides and so on – for guidance on how to respond to life’s challenges and quandaries. When the war came, northerners turned to this wide diversity of published materials to help guide their choices. This book is about the war’s cultural rules that came to define what constituted duty and citizenship.

Page 99 is a pretty good illustration of the book’s larger character. It is, in fact, one of the book’s roughly seventy illustrations. The full-page image on page 99 is one of my favorite illustrations, and an example of one of the most interesting wartime genres. The illustration reproduces a “valentine” from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These valentines were small cards, generally featuring a humorous illustration accompanied by a short piece of verse. In this case, the poem is called “Shoddy”; the image mocks the Union’s crooked government inspectors. The cartoon shows a portly meat inspector blithely ignoring the fact that a barrel of pork being sold to the U. S. Army is rotten. He fails to see the vile truth because the unethical war contractor is waving a $50 bill under his nose.

The popular media during the Civil War really offered two sorts of advice. Many stories and images – like this one – defined and mocked those outrageous character traits that deserved the nation’s fury. Other messages (and other chapters) wrestled with the other side of that coin: What should society expect from the normal pro-war men and women? Defining Duty examines thousands of published sources to offer a new perspective on what it meant to be a loyal patriot in the midst of the Civil War.
Learn more about Defining Duty in the Civil War at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue