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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Etcheson's book reveals 'extraordinary things' in county's past

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nicole Etcheson
While the Civil War was being fought in places like Gettysburg and Bull Run and while it was being debated by politicians in Washington and Richmond, there was also some unrest going on right here in West Central Indiana.

In a fledgling community called Putnam County, a politician pledged no Hoosier money would support the war. Residents gathered at the train station for accounts of the war's early battles -- not all of them upset when the Union Army was routed. Soldiers signed up in droves, turning the tide of an entire generation of Putnam County men and women.

"A Generation at War: The Civil War Era in a Northern Community" gives local residents and Civil War scholars around the nation a glimpse at Putnam County in this era. Dr. Nicole Etcheson of Ball State University recently published the book through the University Press of Kansas.

Etcheson will be at the Putnam County Public Library at noon on Thursday, May 31 to speak at a brown bag lunch hosted by the Civil War Roundtable, PCPL and the Heritage Preservation Society.

Copies of "A Generation at War" will be available, with a chance to have Etcheson sign them.

"Putnam County has a very rich and interesting history," Etcheson said. "We live in our communities and we think they're probably not very interesting. We've grown up there. Nothing ever happens there. It seems really quite dull.

"But if you go back and find out the stories of people who lived there in times of great crisis, or even times that don't seem to have been of great crisis, you find that extraordinary things were really going on."

The era Etcheson highlights is one of great crisis, the greatest in our nation's history. By looking at the era from 1850 through 1877, Etcheson highlights not just the war, but the decade leading up to the war all the way through Reconstruction.

The Organization of American Historians rewarded Etcheson with the Avery Craven Award for the most original book on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Etcheson believes the book is original on two fronts.

"I would argue most of the homefront studies we have and the microhistories that we do have are of the South," Etcheson said. "When they're about the North, they're about cities. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia have all been studied. But most northerners don't live in cities. They live in rural communities like Putnam County."

Additionally, the time encompassed by the book goes beyond most others, recognizing that the war did not happen in a vacuum.

"Most studies, when they do the Civil War era, they do what happened in Chicago 1861 through 1865. So my looking at a somewhat longer period from 1850 up to 1877, which I think allows me to trace the longer term patterns that emerged, I think that's pretty original," she said.

This still begs the question, why Putnam County? Etcheson said there were multiple reasons.

"What really started it was 20 years when I was working on my dissertation, I ran across Daniel Voorhees, who was the congressman from the Seventh District, which includes Putnam County," Etcheson said. "He spoke in Greencastle in December 1860, right after South Carolina had seceded, but before the firing on Fort Sumter a few months later.

"Voorhees gave what became a very famous speech, and for some people quite infamous. He said something to the effect of, the people of Indiana are not going to raise one dollar or one man to fight against our brothers in the South. You can see why that becomes pretty infamous later on. He can be accused of being practically a traitor."

Etcheson's dissertation was on Kentuckians who settled in the Midwest. This was the case for many in Putnam County.

"I thought it would be really interesting to see what they people did during the Civil War, and these loyalties," Etcheson said. "Voorhees is proclaiming, 'We're really Southerners and we're not going to fight against Southerners.' How well did that hold up?"

She also knew of a larger political trend of the time that many in Putnam County fell into.

"I knew that Indiana was what was known as 'Copperhead Territory,' which was the wing of the Democratic Party that wanted to make peace with the South, as opposed to the war Democrats who said we've got to side with Lincoln and send the military to suppress the rebellion," Etcheson said.

The final reason for studying Putnam County was more personal. Etcheson is the youngest of three daughters of the late Gerald Ray Etcheson, a Bainbridge native.

"The third factor was, 'Ah, Putnam County -- that's where my dad's from.' That would be kind of interesting to look in depth at Putnam County," she said.

Like the history of the county itself, Etcheson's family history in Putnam County is rich. Her grandfather and great-grandfather owned the hardware store in Bainbridge for many years.

Gerald was the youngest of Ray and Rosetta Etcheson's four children. Uncles Warren "Tinker" and Kenny Etcheson live in Washington and Illinois, respectively.

Aunt Thursa Evens still lives in southeastern Russell Township and provided "many a free dinner" to her niece during the book's research.

Still, Etcheson did not immediately turn to writing a book about Putnam County as soon as the notion hit her.

"So, I wrote another book, I did other things, and then I came back about seven, eight years ago, to the idea of doing the microhistory of Putnam County," she said.

What followed were countless hours of research -- at DePauw University, "camping out" at the Putnam County Courthouse for a week, at the State Library, the Indiana Historical Society and even the Library of Congress. There was also tromping through Forest Hill, Bainbridge, Cloverdale and Putnamville cemeteries, to name a few.

What Etcheson found was a wealth of information that was surprising, even to local scholars.

"My first research trip I made, (DePauw history professor) John Schlotterbeck kind of scratched his head and said, 'I don't know if you'll find enough to do a whole book about Putnam County.' I said, 'That's fine. If there's not enough in Putnam County, there's Crawfordsville and this whole area around.'

"But it turned out there was enough so I kept the focus on Putnam County."

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