Rethinking the American Civil War, Through the Eyes of a Teenager

By Adrienne M. Naylor
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 3/3 |

Whitcomb’s divergence from the patterns established by her contemporaries might be attributed to a number of factors. She tends to mention political events only insofar as they directly affect her and her life and, as she herself admits, the war did not lay claim to anyone particularly close to her. Additionally, the Zborays’ subjects tend to draw attention to their writing in ways that Whitcomb did not. Elizabeth Cabot wrote a letter in 1862 apologizing for ‘writ[ing] nonsense … as “we are on the eve of great events” there is no news.’ Her husband, once a verbose writer, wrote that he had ‘nothing particular to write’ as there was a ‘wholesome want of news.’ A uniquely self-conscious Lilly Dana, then a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, wrote of the war’s effect on her own diary, nearly devoid of literary reflection since it began, ‘Then, I used to tell what we had for dinner, my quarrels with the girls, & such sorts of things & in the midst of it all, would generally have a Bible verse.’ Whitcomb, by contrast, rarely draws attention to her act of journaling. When she relates that she has been writing, she means either epistolary or academic writing. She notes her journaling when she is finishing the first volume of her two-volume diary, and when she is concluding an uncharacteristically long and reflective entry late at night on her twentieth birthday.24

Though Whitcomb does not seem to be part of the literary war , hovering over newspapers and crowding around the telegraph office, she nonetheless exhibits at least one similarity with other era diarists. In 1864, her entries became sparse, and ceased entirely after 13 August.25

O when will this terrible war end.
Whitcomb’s diary, 11 August 1862

Mary Seline Whitcomb’s anti-war voice defies easy classification. The culture in which she lived barely had room for anti-war views, let alone anti-war women. Popular culture allowed only stories of shallow, selfish young women decrying the enlistment of their lovers, later to endure ‘wild, inward wars’ that taught them to put away their novels and pick up war literature, whereupon they would realize their folly in opposing the gruesome , weather false reports of the slaughter of their lovers, reunite with them, and marry, having learned and grown as patriotic women. There was also the Sentinel’s female copperhead, ‘smaller, but vicious and savage. She generally has rings in her ears and beard on her upper lip. Her bite is poisonous and deadly. We have heard of no instance in which one has been successfully tamed.’26

Her personal politics would best be described as apathetic, but shaped by the dominant Democratic culture of her town, and war talk over games of euchre. Though Whitcomb names more than twenty men and boys in her acquaintance who had enlisted, after the outbreak of hostilities she will sometimes go for months at a time without mentioning the ongoing war fought by her friends, neighbors, and relatives, opting instead to relate tales of school, sickness, sleepovers, dances, and berry picking. Even some entries on the death and destruction wrought by the conflict also contain information on matters of weather, work, visits, church attendance, and dinner. The Democratic anti-war stance of her family and neighbors lent itself well to what seems a fairly innate human disinclination to sacrificing her community members to almost certain gastro-intestinal disease, economic instability, social breakdown, mental and emotional scarring, maiming, and death. Perhaps Whitcomb and those vehemently opposed to war should be seen as less peculiar than those who welcomed and favored its toll upon their neighbors.27


References

1860 United States Federal Census, Swanzey, Cheshire, New Hampshire

Ayling, Augustus D. Revised Register of Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion. Concord: I.C. Evans, public printer, 1895.

Cashin, Joan E. ‘Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance in the North,’ The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002.

Child, Hamilton. Gazetteer of Cheshire County, N.H., 1736-1885. Syracuse: Printed at the Journal Office, 1885.

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Faust, Drew Gilpin This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Keene History Committee. Upper Ashuelot: A History of Keene, New Hampshire. Keene, 1968.

Kemp, Thomas R. ‘Community and War: The Civil War Experience of Two New Hampshire Towns,’ Vinovskis, Maris A., ed. Toward a Social History of the Civil War: Exploratory Essays. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

New Hampshire Registrar of Vital Statistics, Index to Marriages, early to 1900, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Geneaological Society of Utah, 1975-1976) reel 1001293.

Read, Benjamin. The History of Swanzey, New Hampshire, from 1734-1890. Salem, MA: Salem Press, 1892.

Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: the Man Who Killed , Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Vinovskis, Maris A. ‘Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?’ Toward a Social History of the Civil War: Exploratory Essays. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Whitcomb, Charlotte. The Whitcomb Family in America: A Biographical Genealogy with a Chapter on Our English Forbears “by the Name of Whetcombe.Minneapolis, 1904.

Whitcomb, Mary Seline. Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library

White, Richard Grant. National Hymns: How They Are Written and How They Are Not Written. A Lyrics and National Study for the Times. New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861.

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org. 

Zboray, Ronald J. and Mary Saracino Zboray. ‘Cannonballs and Books: Reading and the Disruption of Social Ties on the New England Home Front,‘ Joan Cashin, ed. The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002.

Newspapers I have used: the New Hampshire Sentinel, the New Hampshire Argus and Spectator, New Hampshire Statesman, National Eagle, Northern Advocate.


Endnotes

1.) Before I began this work, the diary at the Boston Public Library was previously unexplored and its author unidentified beyond ‘teenage girl in Swanzey, New Hampshire.’

2.) Depending on the source, I am still undecided as to whether to fault certain authors for this. While the authors in question were not examining pervasive desertion and negativity, the narratives they construct on war culture reveal not even a hint at dissent.

3.) Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

4.) Joan E. Cashin, ‘Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance in the North,’ The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), 278-9. Also Maris A. Vinovskis, ‘Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?’ and Thomas R. Kemp, ‘Community and War: The Civil War Experience of Two New Hampshire Towns,’ Vinovskis, Maris A., ed. Toward a Social History of the Civil War: Exploratory Essays (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 10.

5.) Mary Seline Whitcomb, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library, 21 April 1861, henceforth MSW, BPL. Greenwood quoted by Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 68. Startled loyal Americans from Richard Grant White, National Hymns: How They Are Written and How They Are Not Written. A Lyrics and National Study for the Times (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861), 14, 17.

6.) Eileen Wheelock of the Swanzey Historical Museum told me that this was the newspaper read in Swanzey during this period, but Whitcomb never mentions it by name and only refers once to reading a newspaper at all, and there she was relating her discovery of a friend’s obituary. Two other references to ‘paper’ may or may not refer to newspapers. But, considering the shared literary culture of New England and the social information circulating practices she relates, the news at any given moment may well have come from the pages of the Sentinel. Besides, its post-1861 pages are digitized and searchable on America’s Historical Newspapers.

7.) The New Hampshire Sentinel, 18 April 1861. The New Hampshire Argus and Spectator, 19 April 1861 and 13 September 1861 quoted in Thomas R. Kemp, ‘Community and War: the Civil War Experience of Two New Hampshire Towns,’ Vinovskis, Maris, ed. Toward a Social History of the Civil War: Exploratory Essays (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 41, 36.

8.) MSW, BPL, October and 2 December 1859. David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: the Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 406. MSW, BPL, 10 March 1863. The happenings of the Town Meeting as well as the reference to Swanzey as ‘this important Democratic town’ are from VAN, ‘Swanzey Town Meeting,’ The New Hampshire Sentinel, 2 April 1863.

9.) ‘Natural History—The Copperhead,’ The New Hampshire Sentinel, 9 March 1865.

10.) MSW, BPL, 20 March 1861. 1860 United States Federal Census, Swanzey, Cheshire, New Hampshire. MSW, BPL, 17 August 1862.

11.) MSW, BPL, 25 March 1863. Hentz Homepage, ‘The Negroes of the South are the Happiest Labouring Class on the face of the Globe,’ University of Virginia, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/proslav/hentzhp.html (accessed 11 December 2009). Wikipedia contributors, "The Planter's Northern Bride," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Planter%27s_Northern_Bride&oldid=292377361 (accessed December 11, 2009).

12.) Mass meeting proceedings found in Keene History Committee, Upper Ashuelot: A History of Keene, New Hampshire (Keene, 1968), 107-109 as well as The New Hampshire Sentinel, 25 April 1861, which also addresses the Teachers’ Institute, as did the 18 April 1861 issue. Titus’ military career is recounted in Hamilton Child, Gazetteer of Cheshire County, N.H., 1736-1885 (Syracuse: Printed at the Journal Office, 1885), 119. Whitcomb’s entries on Keene, the Teachers’ Institute, and war talk: 25-27 April 1861. On Titus’ visit to her school and lecture, 17 January 1861.

13.) MSW, BPL, drilling: 25 and 27 April 1861. Departure of troops: 6 May 1861. Burials: 15 December 1861, 25 May 1862, 2 November 1862, 9 December 1863. Consternation at voluntary enlistment: 17 August 1862. Existence of Swanzey’s War-Club reported in the New Hampshire Statesman, 25 January 1862. The officers of the War-Club appear mentioned in Whitcomb’s diary either briefly or not at all. Captain Barker of Keene related these negative reactions from ‘his democratic friends’ at a Union meeting in Keene, reported in Home and State Affairs, The New Hampshire Sentinel, 12 September 1861. The term ‘Black Republican,’ once widespread in national discourse, particularly among Democrats, refers to the alleged concern of Republicans for the dignity and wellbeing of Black people.

14.) MSW, BPL, 1 July 1862.

15.) Ibid, enrollment: 8 August 1862. Military funerals: 15 December 1861, 25 May 1862. Disease: 4 August 1861. Deaths and discharge recorded in and corroborated by Augustus D. Ayling, Revised Register of Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion (Concord: I.C. Evans, public printer, 1895). 

16.) MSW, BPL, suffering: 11 August 1862. Lost boys: 12 and 16 August 1862. Emily’s bracelet: 15 August 1861. Almost like death, Roswell, 11 August 1862. Sympathizers: 12 August 1862. Glorious cause: 17 August 1862. ‘Home and State Affairs,’ The New Hampshire Sentinel, 2 April 1863.

17.) On stigma, Kemp, ‘Community and War,’ Toward a Social History of the Civil War, 47. On bounties, 44-47. National Eagle, 17 July 1862. Northern Advocate, 5 August 1862. MSW, 11 August 1862, corroborated by Benjamin Read, The History of Swanzey, New Hampshire, from 1734-1890 (Salem, MA: Salem Press, 1892), 126.

18.) MSW, 11 August 1862

19.) Augustus D. Ayling, Revised Register of Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion (Concord: I.C. Evans, public printer, 1895). Joan E. Cashin, ‘Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance in the North, The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 266.

20.) List appears in Read, History of Swanzey, 131. New Hampshire Registrar of Vital Statistics, Index to Marriages, early to 1900, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Geneaological Society of Utah, 1975-1976) reel 1001293. Parsons’ & George E. Whitcomb’s success stories in Read on 210, 214, 225-226, 262, 539, 566 as well as in Charlotte Whitcomb, The Whitcomb Family in America: A Biographical Genealogy with a Chapter on Our English Forbears “by the Name of Whetcombe” (Minneapolis, 1904), 513.

21.) While they have written on the topic of New England literary culture more than a few times, I have consulted Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, ‘Cannonballs and Books: Reading and the Disruption of Social Ties on the New England Home Front,‘ Joan Cashin, ed. The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002).

22.) Zboray and Zboray, ‘Reading in New England,’ Civilians in the American Civil War, 244.

23.) Ibid, 252.

24.) Ibid, 245. MSW, BPL, 17 August 1862. I must leave of talking to you Journal and away to repose, 19 June 1863.

25.) Zboray and Zboray, ‘Reading in New England,’ Civilians in the American Civil War, 245. Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 17-20.

26.) Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 130-131. ‘Natural History—The Copperhead,’ The New Hampshire Sentinel, 9 March 1865.

27.) 995 out of 1000 soldiers suffered diarrhea and dysentery. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 4. Reasons soldiers might not want to be soldiers anymore are well enumerated in Joan E. Cashin, Joan E. Cashin, ‘Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance in the North,’ The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002) 1/6 Northern enlistees died, along with 1/4 enlistees. Maris A. Vinovskis, ‘Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?’ Toward a Social History of the Civil War: Exploratory Essays (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 9.

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