OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Joan E. Cashin

Portrait of Joan E. Cashin

Joan E. Cashin is a professor of history at Ohio State University, specializing in social, economic, and cultural history from the Revolution through the Civil War. She is the author of A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier (1991); First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War (2006), winner of the Fletcher Pratt Award from the Civil War Roundtable of New York; and War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War (2018), winner of the Best Book Award from the Ohio Academy of History. She is also the editor of War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era (2018); The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War (2002); Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South (1996); and Clotel, or the President's Daughter (1996), a novel by Williams Wells Brown.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The Shelby family was deeply involved in the history of Kentucky beginning in the colonial era. The first governor, Isaac, was a Revolutionary War hero, and his descendants played prominent roles in the state's history. The family generated a huge amount of documents as well as many material objects, and their correspondence reveals a complex, nuanced understanding of the importance of the physical world in human history. Their perspectives add to our understanding of environmental history and material culture from the Revolution through the 19th century.
Americans believed material objects mattered a great deal in the Civil War era. Before 1861, Northerners and Southerners invested great political meaning in such objects as flags, monuments, and buildings associated with the Revolution (think Mount Vernon), and during the war they competed to take possession of these objects. Northerners who seized control of them believed they symbolized the eventual Union victory.
The two armies had a tremendous impact on the material and physical environment of the wartime South. Because neither army was very good at supplying men in the field, soldiers turned to local resources to meet their needs for food, timber, and habitat. Soon a fierce contest broke out between armies and civilians over these resources, parallel to the struggle between the two armies. Civilians thought their survival was at least as important as any military objective. The war quickly turned into a total war, with an all-out struggle for material resources.
The War brought unprecedented attention to the role of First Lady, but Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Howell Davis were both controversial in their era. Both women were expected to represent the two causes, yet they each had relatives in the enemy army. Mrs. Lincoln also faltered because of her mismanagement of the White House, and Mrs. Davis drew criticism because of her lack of faith in the Confederate war effort. Their experiences reveal the great demands on First Ladies in time of war.
The war touched the lives of almost all American women, black, white, slave, free, Northern, Southern, and Western. They had to grapple with changes in the economy, the political system, and gender roles. The conflict affected them in different ways, of course. Some women, such as African Americans in the South, saw their lives completely transformed when freedom came, while white women in the North seized new opportunities to work outside the home and participate in reform. The theme in this lecture is the wide range of experience.
This lecture addresses the experiences of black women, including slaves, as well as white women from different class backgrounds. African American women did their best to preserve their dignity and protect their families in a hostile environment, while social class among white women profoundly shaped their experiences; yeomen farmers' wives did a lot of hard physical labor, while plantation mistresses, who did not, were supposed to embody their family's elite status. All this made for tense, complicated relations among women who shared the gender subordination of the era but rarely identified with each other.
Slavery broke down in phases inside the Confederacy, beginning with the War's first months in 1861. Runaway slaves fled to the Union Army whenever it appeared, while African Americans in more remote areas engaged in increasingly direct power struggles with slaveowners. Both blacks and whites described slaves who asserted themselves, talked back, reclaimed lost relatives, and sometimes retaliated against whites before they left for the North or Union-occupied territory. This process had its own momentum, inspired by but separate from changes in national politics.
What we now call the Midwest was known before 1861 as the Old Northwest. Thomas Jefferson banned slavery from this region with the Northwest Ordinance, so these states had always been free. As such, the region was a magnet for runaway slaves, especially from the Upper South. Some of them remained in the region, while others moved on to Canada. The region also witnessed some dramatic conflicts between slavecatchers and fugitives, who were assisted by sympathetic blacks and whites. The Midwest played an important part in the history of emancipation.