Author Interview--Joseph J. Casino (‘Plenty of Work to Do’)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature Joseph J. Casino to talk about his new piece in Civil War History, “‘Plenty of Work to Do’: Correspondence of an Illinois Farm Girl during the American Civil War” (Civil War History 65:1 (March 2019)).

Joseph J. Casino is Adjunct Professor of History at Villanova University since 1978. He also served for thirty-four years as director of the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. 

Joe, your article is rather unique in that you reproduced a series of letters. How did you find these items and why did you think these made an important contribution to our understanding of the Civil War?

JJC: From 1981 to 2015 I was the Director of the Archives for the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. During those years, I processed or had processed several collections of manuscripts locked away in a closet. One of those collections was the papers of Father Patrick Reilly, who was the founder and headmaster of St. Mary's College in Wilmington, Delaware. 172 of those letters which I transcribed off and on over a number of years provide the basis for the book I'm completing. Father Reilly maintained correspondence with students and parents some of whom supported the Union and some of whom supported the Confederacy. Among those letters were 9 from Father Reilly's niece who lived in Illinois. I found those letters intriguing enough for me to propose annotating them and publishing them. I'm a military historian (still teach a course or two at Villanova University), so getting involved in "women's" history was a first for me. 

The letters seemed special because they were written by a young girl (teenager) whose mother was sickly, and whose father went off to fight for the Union. When he returned wounded and in poor health, he could no longer take care of the family farm. So it was left up to this young girl to take on enormous new responsibilities.

Since she was a single girl writing to an uncle far away, so I thought the letters would contain information not ordinarily found in more traditional home front letters. I think that proved to be true. Also, I was surprised by the topics that were missing from the letters - very little about war news, casualties among townsmen, no mention of Confederate raids through the area, not much on community send-offs of soldiers, avoidance of the significant Copperhead troubles of the area (southern Illinois). The letters do contain tantalizing suggestions of ethnic and religious friction in that rural community. I also speculated that avoidance of political issues (divide loyalties, Copperheadism, etc.) was deemed the safest course in that region.

For the first-ever foray into a new historiographical territory, you are providing readers with an abundance of helpful supporting and explanatory annotations. What was the biggest surprise or unexpected discovery you had reading through these letters?

JJC: I guess, if there were any surprises, they were about what I expected to find in the letters, but didn't. I expected lots of pathos about all the men and boys in the village going off to war along with all the community send-offs and unit flag presentations that I had read so much about in other sources. I found none, or very little, of those things. For a state that provided so many troops to the Union army, that was unexpected. And Mary Anne's father who returned home wounded after a very brief stint in the army, seemed in no hurry to return to the ranks. His discouraging his son from joining the army hinted at least at a lukewarm feeling for the Union cause.

Also, for a state that provided so much in the way of farm products to the Union army, there is no mention of any grain or livestock being sold to the army from this apparently quite extensive farm. 

And then there was the silence on any of the burning issues of the day like slavery, emancipation, and loyalty. Because southern Illinois was a tumultuous place for those issues, I found it strange that the letter writer never mentions any of these things. I could understand that silence if she expected the letters to be read by someone in that region whose attitudes towards any of those issues might have caused a hostile response, but the letters were sent to someone in far away Delaware and never were expected to find their way into anyone else's hands but those of her uncle. Why such silence? Speculation based on an absence of evidence is always risky, but it did intrigue me.

We know there were frequent Copperhead incidents in the region and some Confederate raids not too far away which caused some panics elsewhere, but none of these events found a place in her letters.

And finally, unlike so many other accounts of Northern females during the war, Mary Anne's letters reveal no desire on her part to participate in any fund-raising, sewing, nursing, or Sanitary Commission activities. Of course, with all the responsibility to manage the farm thrown on her shoulders (her father was incapable because of his wounds and persistent health problems, and her mother incapable or unwilling to pick up some of the burden, and her brother off to school), that may not be unexpected -- but I was surprised in her failure to express even any desire to support the Union war effort.

We don't often find letters penned by single females on the Northern home front. Most of what I have read have been by spouses of soldiers or mothers of soldier sons. The discovery of these nine letters (and in an unexpected place -- the correspondence of a Catholic priest in Delaware) was a surprise in itself.

Those are puzzling omissions indeed. Recently, there has been a new push in scholarship with regard to gaining a better understanding of the interconnectedness of the "Middle Border" region, the lower Midwest and upper parts of Kentucky. Do you think the letters you uncovered will force scholars to explore new voices as well as rethinking the commitment of people to the Union war? What do you hope these letters will have as an impact on Civil War scholarship?


JJC: When doing a documentary annotation like this, I don't first consider what has already been written on the topic. I was never a good historiographer anyway; but I like the documents to suggest things to me, and then I see how they fit into the existing literature. So in this case I was clueless about Illinois, or the Midwest generally, during the Civil War when I began reading the letters. I'm an Easterner through and through (except for 4 great years at the U of M), and the focus of my research over the past 50 years has always been Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. I don't even consider myself a Civil War historian, although my first love of history was begun during the Civil War Centennial celebrations. Most of my work has been in the colonial and revolutionary period.

That being said, and considering the fact that I am now finishing up a book on the Civil War, I think I can address, albeit weakly, your question about revision of some current thinking on regional loyalties during the Civil War. My reading of several diaries and collections of letters from Pennsylvania has shown me how imperfectly many people understood what was happening right around them during the Civil War. For example, both soldiers and civilians in and around Gettysburg didn't always really know what was happening just a few miles away. They certainly could not rely on newspaper accounts -- some have Lee being victorious. One diarist in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, had Richmond and Vicksburg falling to Union troops in May 1863, and McClellan driving Lee away from Harrisburg on July 1, 1863. So I would not fault Mary Anne or her family if she or they held some reflections in confidence until more reliable information was available. The fact that no letters from the last two years of the war have survived leaves me silent on any conclusions they might have arrived at. There is not even a mention that Mary Anne was in correspondence with anyone else in the region.

From just these letters, I could not possibly speak with any authority to any interconnectedness in that region, and I certainly would not be so confident that my poor offering would in any way convince more experienced Civil War scholars to "rethink" anything about people's commitment to the Union cause. I do hope some of those scholars might entertain the prospect that for some people in the North, matters of soil, weather, planting, harvesting, mending fences, fending off local interlopers, and health issues might have crowded out concern for the burning political, social, and military issues of the time (the things real Civil War historians concern themselves with), at least in their correspondence with a far away relative. Moreover, we should all be aware that some of the most important things to people in rural communities in the mid-19th century, war or no war, would not necessarily find their way into written correspondence. People in such communities still communicated much of importance face-to-face! The silence on many issues in Mary Anne's letters was deafening.

Joe, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your article with us here on H-CivWar.