The Divided Family in Civil War America

The Divided Family in Civil War America

The Divided Family in Civil War America

The Divided Family in Civil War America


The Civil War has long been described as a war pitting "brother against brother." The divided family is an enduring metaphor for the divided nation, but it also accurately reflects the reality of America's bloodiest war. Connecting the metaphor to the real experiences of families whose households were split by conflicting opinions about the war, Amy Murrell Taylor provides a social and cultural history of the divided family in Civil War America.

In hundreds of border state households, brothers--and sisters--really did fight one another, while fathers and sons argued over secession and husbands and wives struggled with opposing national loyalties. Even enslaved men and women found themselves divided over how to respond to the war. Taylor studies letters, diaries, newspapers, and government documents to understand how families coped with the unprecedented intrusion of war into their private lives. Family divisions inflamed the national crisis while simultaneously embodying it on a small scale--something noticed by writers of popular fiction and political rhetoric, who drew explicit connections between the ordeal of divided families and that of the nation. Weaving together an analysis of this popular imagery with the experiences of real families, Taylor demonstrates how the effects of the Civil War went far beyond the battlefield to penetrate many facets of everyday life.


Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858 that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” His words, prophetic of the war that was to come three years later, continue to resonate today. That phrase — just one part of a much larger address — has become one of Lincoln’s most recognizable contributions to our American political vocabulary. But those words were not unique to the nineteenth-century president. the image of a “house divided,” or a family in conflict, was a timeless one that drew on a long tradition in literature and political thought. From the Bible to Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s works to the political theories of John Locke, the family has offered a common language for understanding the complexities of human relationships. For Lincoln, the family provided a rhetorical shorthand, allowing him in just six words to convey what slavery might do to the relationship between Northern and Southern citizens.

Lincoln was not alone in describing a nation in family terms. Historians across the globe have uncovered numerous moments in which family language and metaphor figured centrally in the imagining of nations — particularly nations in conflict. We can see this in the French Revolution, Russian propaganda during World War I, and the Cold War, to name a few examples. the widespread use of the family image raises important questions about national identity — where it comes from, how it is defined, and how attachments to family and nation coexist and reinforce one another. in the United States we can trace the roots of the family metaphor at least to the Revolution, as colonists imagined themselves as children of a tyrannical British father.

The Civil War only amplified this association of nation and family with an outpouring of speeches and stories that joined Lincoln in comparing the nation to a divided house. Even today, in movies, Web sites, children’s literature, and John Jakes novels, we continue to see the warring nation as if it were a quarreling family — or a war of “brother against brother.” It has become a . . .

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