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A People at War

Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War

Scott Reynolds Nelson and Carol Sheriff

Publication Date - January 2008

ISBN: 9780195146554

384 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Retail Price to Students: $39.99

A vivid portrait of how the Civil War convulsed the lives of ordinary Americans, civilians and soldiers alike


Claiming more than 600,000 lives, the American Civil War had a devastating impact on countless numbers of common soldiers and civilians, even as it brought freedom to millions. This book shows how average Americans coped with despair as well as hope during this vast upheaval.
A People at War brings to life the full humanity of the war's participants, from women behind their plows to their husbands in army camps; from refugees from slavery to their former masters; from Mayflower descendants to freshly recruited Irish sailors. We discover how people confronted their own feelings about the war itself, and how they coped with emotional challenges (uncertainty, exhaustion, fear, guilt, betrayal, grief) as well as physical ones (displacement, poverty, illness, disfigurement). The book explores the violence beyond the battlefield, illuminating the sharp-edged conflicts of neighbor against neighbor, whether in guerilla warfare or urban riots. The authors travel as far west as China and as far east as Europe, taking us inside soldiers' tents, prisoner-of-war camps, plantations, tenements, churches, Indian reservations, and even the cargo holds of ships. They stress the war years, but also cast an eye at the tumultuous decades that preceded and followed the battlefield confrontations.
An engrossing account of ordinary people caught up in life-shattering circumstances, A People at War captures how the Civil War rocked the lives of rich and poor, black and white, parents and children--and how all these Americans pushed generals and presidents to make the conflict a people's war.

About the Author(s)

Scott Nelson is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction and Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of John Henry and the Birth of an American Legend.

Carol Sheriff is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. She is the author of The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862.


"Nelson and Sheriff offer a good social history of the US Civil War.... Overall, very well researched and nicely written. Highly recommended."--E.M. Thomas, CHOICE

"A People at War is especially welcome because its subject cannot be overstudied and this particular examination is beautifully executed. The authors are comprehensive, wide-ranging and sensitive. The book is informative and pleasurable to read."--Ray B. Browne, Journal of American Cultures

"A People at War stands out as one of the best comprehensive overviews because of its focus on the lives and experiences of ordinary civilians and soldiers. Relying upon recent social histories and extensive primary sources, the book provides a new perspective on an otherwise well-studied subject. Scholars, the public, and especially students will benefit greatly from this highly readable and fascinating volume."--Maris Vinovskis, Bentley Professor of History, University of Michigan

"In 1861 Abraham Lincoln described the Civil War as 'a people's contest.' A People at War chronicles in encyclopedic detail just what that phrase meant to the millions of soldiers and their families and friends back home who experienced that bloodiest of American wars. Drawing on hundreds of books and articles that have made social history the most dynamic field of Civil War historiography in recent years, the authors bring alive the impact of the war on ordinary as well as extraordinary people."--James M. McPherson, Princeton University

"I am very pleased to see someone generally succeed at a book that covers vital themes in the history of the Civil War, seamlessly integrates and builds on the best of recent scholarship--and does so with such economy and, at times, stylistic flair."--Michael Mason, Brigham Young University

"An excellent, well-written, broad overview of important yet often muted facets of Civil War history. Scholars, teachers, and buffs should all enjoy this inspired work."--William Feis, The Annals of Iowa

Table of Contents

    Introduction: A People at War
    From Compromise to Chaos: 1854-1861
    1. The Road to Bleeding Kansas
    2. From Wigwam to War
    The Changing Faces of War: 1861-1863
    3. Friends and Foes: Early Recruits and Freedom's Cause, 1861-1862
    4. Union Occupation and Guerrilla Warfare
    5. Facing Death
    Political, Military, and Diplomatic Remedies: 1862-1865
    6. Two Governments Go to War: Southern Democracy and Northern Republicanism
    7. Redefining the Rules of War: The Lieber Code
    8. Diplomacy in the Shadows: Cannons, Sailors, and Spies
    The War Hits Home: 1861-1865
    9. We Need Men: Union Struggles over Manpower
    10. The Male World of the Camp: Domesticity and Discipline
    11. "Cair, Anxiety, & Tryals": Life in the Wartime Union
    12. War's Miseries: The Confederate Home Front
    Rebuilding the Nation: 1865-1877
    13. A Region Reconstructed and Unreconstructed: The Postwar South
    14. A Nation Stitched Together: Westward Expansion and the Peace Treaty of 1877
    Political Chronology
    Military Chronology
    Suggestions for Further Reading

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