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Nicole Etcheson and Cortney Cantrell

During the Civil War, the entire North constituted the homefront, an area largely removed from the din and horror of combat. With a few exceptions of raids and battles such as Gettysburg, civilians in the North experienced the war indirectly. The people on the homefront mobilized for war, sent their menfolk off to fight, supplied the soldiers and the army, coped without their breadwinners, and suffered the loss or maiming of men they loved. All the while, however, the homefront was crucially important to the course of the war. The mobilization of northern resources—not just men, but the manufacture of the arms and supplies needed to fight a war—enabled the North to conduct what some have called a total war, one on which the Union expended money and manpower at unprecedented levels. Confederate strategists hoped to break the will of the northern homefront to secure southern independence. Despite the hardships endured in the North, this strategy failed. On the homefront, women struggled to provide for their families as well as to serve soldiers and the army by sending care packages and doing war work. Family letters reveal the impact of the war on children who lost their fathers either temporarily or permanently. Communities rallied to aid soldiers’ families but were riven by dissension over issues such as conscription and emancipation. Immigrants and African Americans sought a new place in U.S. society by exploiting the opportunities the war offered to prove their worth. Service in the Union army certainly advanced the status of some groups, but was not the only means to that end. Nuns who nursed the wounded improved the reputation of the Catholic Church and northern African Americans used the increasingly emancipationist war goals to improve their legal status in the North. The Civil War altered race relations most radically, but change came to everyone on the northern homefront.

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On the eve of World War II many Americans were reluctant to see the United States embark on overseas involvements. Yet the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seemingly united the nation in determination to achieve total victory in Asia and Europe. Underutilized industrial plants expanded to full capacity producing war materials for the United States and its allies. Unemployment was sucked up by the armed services and war work. Many Americans’ standard of living improved, and the United States became the wealthiest nation in world history. Over time, this proud record became magnified into the “Good War” myth that has distorted America’s very real achievement. As the era of total victories receded and the United States went from leading creditor to debtor nation, the 1940s appeared as a golden age when everything worked better, people were united, and the United States saved the world for democracy (an exaggeration that ignored the huge contributions of America’s allies, including the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China). In fact, during World War II the United States experienced marked class, sex and gender, and racial tensions. Groups such as gays made some social progress, but the poor, especially many African Americans, were left behind. After being welcomed into the work force, women were pressured to go home when veterans returned looking for jobs in late 1945–1946, losing many of the gains they had made during the conflict. Wartime prosperity stunted the development of a welfare state; universal medical care and social security were cast as unnecessary. Combat had been a horrific experience, leaving many casualties with major physical or emotional wounds that took years to heal. Like all major global events, World War II was complex and nuanced, and it requires careful interpretation.