Historians of the Civil War have extensively studied the war’s prominent players—its generals, politicians, and other public leaders—but they have devoted far less attention to the common soldiers and civilians—the “plain folk”—who actively participated in the conflict. In his study of popular thought during the Civil War, Randall C. Jimerson presents a revealing, long-needed grass-roots perspective on the sectional conflict by examining the thoughts and ideas of these ordinary men and women.
The Private Civil War derives much of its power from the author’s deft use of personal letters and diaries. Separated from home and family, virtually every soldier and many civilians wrote frequent and informative letters or recorded daily experiences and thoughts in journals. Jimerson has consulted a broad cross section of these documents, culling information from letters and diaries written by people from every state and from all social classes and military ranks. These documents, remarkable in many instances for their depth of feeling and eloquence, provide rich, detailed information about sectional perceptions and ideology as well as many private reflections.
From his study of these letters and diaries, Jimerson analyzes four broad themes from both northern and southern points of view. He considers what the war meant to individual participants and why they decided to fight. He examines the effects the war had on racial attitudes and the changing role of blacks in society. He looks at northerners’ and southerners’ conceptions of each other as “the enemy” and shows that these images resulted not only from ideological differences over slavery but also from other perceived differences in the society and culture of the two sections. He also examines internal divisions—resulting from class differences, rivalries between eastern and western regions, and other factors—in both the Union and the Confederacy. Jimerson does a masterful job of conveying the range of opinion expressed by both northerners and southerners and depicts the dynamic interaction between personal experience and evolving patterns of belief.
While Jimerson’s study is undeniably important for its analytical interpretation of popular thought during the Civil War, it is equally distinctive for its dramatic narrative. In the tradition of the work of Bell I. Wiley and Bruce Catton, Jimerson’s lucid prose, smoothly incorporating an abundance of direct quotations from primary sources, makes history come alive.
Randall C. Jimerson, professor of history and director of the graduate program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, is the author of The Private Civil War: Popular Thought during the Sectional Conflict and Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.
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