THE CHILDREN’S CIVIL WAR, by James Marten, University of North Carolina Press, 380 pages, $34.95.
How did children experience the Civil War? James Marten, an associate professor of history at Marquette University, answers that question in a groundbreaking and valuable study of a previously neglected subject.
How the war affected youngsters depended on whether they were boys or girls, Northerners or Southerners, black or white, slave or free. But the tumultuous events of 1861 to 1865 had a profound impact on the entire generation. The toys and games youngsters played with, the entertainments they enjoyed, the books and magazines they read, the lessons they learned in school–all were saturated with the war’s imagery. Reflecting the beliefs of parents and teachers, children became ardent patriots of the Union or the Confederacy, or contrary Northern Copperheads or Southern Unionists.
Fathers and older brothers in the army wrote letters to keep in touch with little ones at home, and Marten quotes extensively from their moving correspondence. All too often, children received heartbreaking news of the loss of a loved one at the front.
Southern children, white and black, fled their homes as refugees, witnessed the destruction of their farms or villages, and were wounded and killed by stray shot and shell. Wartime childhoods molded adults who revered the Lost Cause in Dixie, remembered the martyred Abraham Lincoln in the North, and struggled to preserve a precarious freedom after emancipation.
Children composed more than one-third of the population of the divided country when the war began. Until now, their recorded voices were scattered and faint. Marten has gathered many long-lost youthful voices to speak to us again, clearly and soulfully, more than a century after the great national trauma.
Mark Dunkelman is the author of the forthcoming book Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston.