Good times on the home front


THE NORTH FIGHTS THE CIVIL WAR: THE HOME FRONT. By J. Matthew Gallman. Ivan R. Dee, Inc. 211 pages. $22.50.

THE CONCLUSION of this well organized and readable study of the effect of America's bloodiest war on the life of civilians in the victorious North is that other than the new legal freedom for blacks who had been slaves, there were few major changes.

Prejudice against blacks among whites stayed as virulent as ever in the North, as in the South. Class antagonism between rich and poor was not improved by provisions that allowed men with money to buy exemption from the military draft. Women were restricted to "woman's work" in the war effort -- nursing, serving coffee and knitting socks for soldiers.

No big advances in medicine were developed: Whiskey apparently was the primary anesthetic used in the thousands of amputations performed.

According to author J. Matthew Gallman, an associate professor of history at Loyola College in Maryland, "The war's economic effects cut in contradictory directions. The demand for contract workers and soldiers kept unemployment low. Bounties, soldiers' wages and assistance to families of volunteers redistributed wealth toward the working classes.

"On the other hand, wartime inflation hit wage earners, particularly unskilled workers, the hardest. Heavy battlefield casualties left thousands of widows and orphans in need of aid. And although military pay raised incomes for some men, other volunteers accepted reduced wages, and many soldiers -- and their families -- suffered through long months of hardship awaiting delayed pay."

It was worse in the South, of course.

As many Americans have done on the home front during many wars, civilians whooped it up during the Civil War. Theater attendance boomed. Singing, dancing and drinking prevailed. Some manufacturers made fortunes, some by selling shoddy goods to the government.

Contrary to Robert E. Lee's judgment that people might grow to love war if it weren't so horrible, this book suggests that lots of folks -- mostly well behind the front lines -- have fun when there's a war on.

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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