War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era

War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era

War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era

War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era

Synopsis

Material objects lie at the crux of understanding individual and social relationships in history, and the Civil War era is no exception. Before, during, and after the war, Americans from all walks of life created, used, revered, exploited, discarded, mocked, and destroyed objects for countless reasons. These objects had symbolic significance for millions of people. The essays in this volume consider a wide range of material objects, including weapons, Revolutionary artifacts, landscapes, books, vaccine matter, human bodies, houses, clothing, and documents. Together, the contributors argue that an examination of the meaning of material objects can shed new light on the social, economic, and cultural history of the conflict. This book will fundamentally reshape our understanding of the war.

In addition to the editor, contributors include Lisa M. Brady, Peter S. Carmichael, Earl J. Hess, Robert D. Hicks, Victoria E. Ott, Jason Phillips, Timothy Silver, Yael A. Sternhell, Sarah Jones Weicksel, Mary Saracino Zboray, and Ronald J. Zboray.

Excerpt

In 1838, Frederick Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, settled in a two- room house in New Bedford, Massachusetts. They came from Maryland, where he had been a house slave and a field laborer, and she had been a freedwoman and a seamstress. When he fled bondage for the North, Anna Douglass fashioned the sailor’s uniform he wore in disguise, and after she joined him in New Bedford, she provided their feather bed, pillows, bed linens, cutlery, and other housewares. They worked hard to make the New Bedford residence what their daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague called a “well appointed” home. Frederick Douglass, who was highly observant about the material world, remembered that house for a long time. in 1890, when he visited with his daughter, he described “every detail” of the interior, which was “indelibly impressed upon his mind,” she said. He remembered the tablecloth, coarse to the touch but white as snow, the neat tableware, and exactly where a towel hung on a nail. When the family moved to Rochester, New York, they took the dishes with them as “souvenirs,” according to Sprague. An object can appeal for many reasons, including its design, size, ornamentation, color, texture, or personal association with life experience. Frederick and Anna Douglass cherished their household objects as symbols of their privacy, their liberty, and their ability to create a domestic life together.

The Douglasses also had a keen sense of how material things functioned as signifiers of political issues beyond the household. Some years later, after their house in Rochester burned down, they furnished another house together, Cedar Hill, a two- story structure on a hill in Washington, D.C. They poured their energies into this home, too. They added over half a dozen rooms and filled the domicile with yet more mementos from their lives as free people, including portraits of reformers they admired and precious political artifacts, such as Abraham Lincoln’s walking cane, a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln in 1865. Frederick Douglass called it an “object of sacred interest” and said he would keep it as long as he lived, as in fact he did. Anna Douglass, who was very proud of the Cedar Hill house, died there . . .

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