Untouched by the Conflict, edited by Jonathan W. White and Daniel Glenn

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Untouched by the Conflict: The Civil War Letters of  Singleton Ashenfelter, Dickinson College
edited by Jonathan W. White and Daniel Glenn
Kent State University Press,
142 pp., hardcover $29

The title of this unique collection of Civil War letters draws from an influential work of modern scholarship. The editors observe in their introduction that it was social historian J. Matthew Gallman who first wrote in The North Fights the Civil War (1994) that “much of Northern society carried on seemingly untouched by the conflict.” Noted historian Jonathan White (Christopher Newport University) and author Daniel Glenn, one of his former CNU students, then chose this thought-provoking scholarly observation to help distill the experience of Singleton Ashenfelter, an undergraduate at Dickinson College (Class of 1865), who wrote dozens of letters during the war that made hardly any mention at all of combat or politics. Sing, as the young Pennsylvanian signed his letters, simply wanted to keep one of his closest friends from Phoenixville, a future governor of the state named Samuel Pennypacker, aware of his intellectual progress and occasional social setbacks at Carlisle. There was typical gossip about romance and drinking, but there was also plenty of more highbrow discussion concerning books and faith. The meticulously edited letters, which cover the period 1862 to 1865, thus provide a fascinating snapshot of daily life for a certain class of Northern young men. What they don’t provide is any of the drama usually anticipated in such a collection of wartime writings. That’s fine, however. This slim volume, which has also been lavishly illustrated (more than 30 photographs) and carefully supplemented by several appendixes (including an eye-opening list of expenses, beginning with the $33 Dickinson tuition), will surely reward any readers who want to explore key facets of 19th-century male friendship or collegiate life.

Matthew Pinsker
Dickinson College