Nathan Kalmoe, "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Cambridge UP, 2020)


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Political Scientist Nathan Kalmoe has written a fascinating historical and political exploration of the connections between violence and partisanship before, during, and after the American Civil War. This book brings together work by historians and political scientists and straddles both disciplines in the examination of the way that partisan politics at the time of the Civil War also contributed to the rise and use of violence, and how this violence then fed back into partisan politics during this period. Kalmoe engaged a multi-method approach to the research, examining election returns, especially county-level returns during this time; he also integrated the census data from the time to map where voters lived and where soldiers were coming from when they became part of the military. Kalmoe dug deeply into the records about the soldiers (which have been digitized), learning about what happened to them, where they fought, and where they called home. Finally, in order to get a clear sense of the partisan divisions and the action and rhetoric of the party elite, he integrated content from local newspapers—these newspapers were often the media arms of particular political parties in cities and localities, and thus they directly reflected the thinking of the party leaders in those same cities and localities. Kalmoe noted that literacy rates were quite high during this time, which also makes the case for the usefulness of what these partisan newspapers were writing about and reflecting to their readership.

With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War (Cambridge UP, 2020) examines this violent period of American history, and Kalmoe is able to essentially measure how casualties effected voting and mass political behavior by using all of these historical sources to discern this data. By tracing these related behaviors, Kalmoe highlights some of the changes in attitude and approach that takes place in the two main political parties at the time. He finds that the northern Democrats shifted markedly from a pro-war stance earlier in the war to, in 1864, every northern Democratic newspaper taking an anti-war position. This is a rather dynamic change that takes place over a short time. During this same period, the northern Republican partisans were suffering significantly more losses, and they were even more committed to the war, as reflected in the newspapers and in the public events where speakers addressed the topic of the war. This pattern of war memory also continues in Reconstruction, as Republican states built monuments to remember the fallen, and as the regiments also wrote up their own histories, delineating the heroic deeds of those who were members of the respective regiments. This is a sophisticated and complex analysis of the connection between violence and partisan in an earlier era in the United States, when the Union and the Confederacy were moved to take up arms and to commit to violence in ways that were also directly related to the active political parties and partisan affiliation with those parties. In reading through With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War it hard not to see echoes and images of more recent political violence and the way that this more contemporary violence is also tied to partisanship.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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