Sunday, May 29, 2011

Victorian America in the Civil War

Rose, Anne C. Victorian America and the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 324 pp. $31.99 – ISBN 0521478839. Book review by Jared Frederick.

Anne C. Rose’s Victorian American and the Civil War delves into the lives, business, and perceptions of seventy-five middle class Americans against the backdrop of the conflict that altered all their lives. Of these, most are northerners who were or shortly thereafter became prominent members of their community or generation. These personalities include Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, George Templeton Strong, and Varina Davis. At the center of Rose’s argument is the idea that the Civil War further established rather than dismantled romanticized Victorian sensibilities. The nature of the war also led to a reexamination of religious matters and dependence. In some cases, the bloody struggle weakened faith to the point that many citizens turned to other social outlets to seek comfort or guidance. Furthermore, this growing apathy or ambivalence toward religion, she argues, helped lead to the societal disparities and strife of the subsequent Gilded Age.

Divided into sections regarding religion, work, leisure, family, and politics, Rose’s study attempts to interpret a wide range of social factors which forced Civil War Americans not only who they were, but what they desired to be. Of these topics, religion is the one the author tries to understand the most. Although religious beliefs helped fuel the war, the drawn out nature of the war helped lead to a “crisis in faith and nationhood” where citizens reconsidered the power of a benevolent God as well as their place within their own country. Religious communities of the era, Rose argues, increasingly lacked fellowship, questioned the meanings of life, and struggled to reconcile mass death with their core religious and moral beliefs. As a result, they turned their attention to secular activities and jobs where satisfaction could be attained. In this light, religion no longer provided the spiritual nourishment it had in previous decades.

As the war bolstered the power of the Federal Government, Rose sees the alignment of politics and romanticized Victorian notions within the same public trend. Here, work and leisure activities came to embody one’s self more than religion had. War reunions, veterans’ groups, and war-related organizations allowed people to have structured, sophisticated, and even prominent positions in society. If business proved not to be rewarding enough for these citizens, leisure activities served as a “cushion” for their shortcomings. Politics served a similar function in the fact that it, in some ways, became a religion in the fact that it became the public forum in which to discuss morality, ideological issues, life goals, and daily life. In stating this, Rose reaffirms that the Civil War could partially be measured as a quest of giving meaning to life in addition to establishing social identity. In doing so, the war became “a defining event, an experience like a religious conversion that would follow human beings to come to terms with themselves.” The conflict served as “a vehicle of spiritual revolution that face it such a central places in their lives” (236).

Also significant, Rose claims that the most crucial of social and intellectual trends of the era already had a tight grip on society before the war even took place and the conflict did not greatly alter these already entrenched ideologies. She states that, “[r]eligious disaffection was challenging the availability of belief that had anchored culture in earlier decades. . . . The war encouraged bureaucratic organization, personal autonomy, and the expansion of experimental mental and sentimental forms of reference. But it did not cause the central dilemma of the Victorians to be redefined” (13). In other words, she places people within a societal shift already taking place rather than a shift created entirely by the war. She notes in a rather contradictory way that the struggle did, however, allow them to “reassess the value of human effort.”

Despite Rose claiming that Civil War Americans were living and working within and existing framework, she goes on to note that the conflict strengthened family kinship and reinforced sentimentality. Rose argues that this kinship increased their interests in government. With this, she concludes that politics replaced religion in a variety of ways because it served to satisfy social, intellectual, and moral convictions as a means of weighing and judging themselves (224).

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