Book Review: The Fabric of Civil War Society: Uniforms, Badges, and Flags 1859-1939

The Fabric of Civil War Society: Uniforms, Badges, and Flags 1859-1939. By Shae Smith Cox. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2024. Hardcover, 303 pp. $50.00.

Reviewed by Lucas Clawson

Our world is a messy one. Especially when histories, culture, symbolism, and memory collide over a conflict we Americans fought with ourselves. Shae Smith Cox reminds us of this in The Fabric of Civil War Society by exploring some of the meanings attached to uniforms, badges, and flags of the Civil War era.

Dr. Cox takes readers on a journey through a large swath of time, from the preparations for war through the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg, to show us how a large and diverse group of people assigned meaning to themselves and their ideologies with objects made from fabric like clothing, corps badges, flags, and commemorative ribbons. These items were (and still are) evocative in ways other examples of material culture are not because they are worn on the body or carried in the hand. Thus they are deeply personal and highly visible, allowing their owners to quite literally wear their beliefs on their sleeves.

Uniforms, badges, and flags are, as Dr. Cox points out, items that are unruly. They provide a practical purpose, like protecting the body or identifying troops in combat. But they also receive multiple, overlapping, and often conflicting meanings that change with the times and circumstances. For example, a U.S. Army uniform symbolized manhood and citizenship for African American soldiers and simultaneously meant oppression to recently-defeated secessionists and evoked racist reactions and feelings from Northerners and Southerners alike. Another example of how unruly these objects are is how Confederate flags, both battle flags and national standards, functioned as symbols of fierce pride to ex-Confederates and their descendants, as identity markers for some Native American groups, as emblems of terror for African Americans, and even a means of reconciliation to some misguided Northerners.

The contentious history of the Long Civil War and its memory is well documented. Dr. Cox adds to this rich scholarship by reminding us how important material culture was to those who lived through the war and its aftermath and still is to those of us who mull over these histories in the present. We are our “stuff” and our “stuff” is us. We humans cannot separate ourselves from the stuff in our lives and all the meanings we attach to it. It’s so obvious we often don’t think about it. Dr. Cox does a good job of pointing out the obvious: stuff matters and serves as an important body of evidence from which to build rich, complex narratives about one of the messiest events in the American experience.

In addition to examining uniforms, badges, and flags, Dr. Cox used a large body of evidence to make her points. Personal papers, government regulations, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, veteran organization publications, and women’s groups records are among the sources she explored. The numerous newspapers and popular publications are among the most convincing evidence that Dr. Cox used, since they reflected the public sentiment she sought out for her arguments. She also introduces us to a lot of characters from both sides of the Civil War, including politicians, manufacturers, sales agents, soldiers, veterans, women’s groups, fraternal societies, and terrorist factions. One of the book’s strengths is that Dr. Cox does not neglect the voices of African Americans, Native Americans, and women, reminding us they were important participants and witnesses to the Long Civil War.

The Fabric of Civil War Society is a thoughtful, well-considered book that uses material culture to show how messy life can be; a point that is none too important when thinking about something as momentous as the American Civil War.

 

Lucas R. Clawson is historian at Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. He works with the historical records of the DuPont Company, du Pont family, and businesses in the Delaware Valley, using them to create public programming, lead discussions with Hagley’s staff, and for scholarly research on topics such as the DuPont Company, Delaware and the Border States in the American Civil War, and the U.S. Navy during the 19th century. Lucas is a graduate of Appalachian State University and the University of Delaware. He has been with Hagley since 2007.



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