The Civil War: A Visual History


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Produced with the Smithsonian Institution and released in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, "The Civil War" is the definitive visual history to one of the most defining moments in America's history.

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Mar 16, 2018

Visualizing The Civil War

The ongoing commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has become an occasion for reflection. There are many new books with widely varying levels of focus that are joining an already vast literature. People with different levels of interest can find books and other means to learn and think about America's great conflict with itself.

Among the new books is this large, coffee-table like volume "The Civil War: a Visual History" (2011) produced under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. The book is bulky and not easily portable. It offers a good basic history of the Civil War beginning with the origins of the conflict and concluding with Reconstruction. Although there is substantial text of varying quality, the appeal of this book lies in its extensive pictorial record. The book is full of paintings, engravings, lithographs, photographs, maps and other representations of the battles, individuals, flags, weapons, and other paraphernalia that made up the Civil War. The book uses glossy paper. The reproductions, especially the colors, are bright and clear.

The book is in seven chapters, each of which is divided into many sections of only a page or so. The opening chapter "An Imperfect Union" focuses on the years leading up to the conflict. The years 1861 -- 1865 each receive a separate extended chapter while the final chapter "Legacies of the War" touches upon Reconstruction. Each chapter begins with an introduction and a detailed timeline which I found useful. Short sections then cover each significant event of the period in a manner which makes up in breadth and comprehensiveness for what it may lack in detail. When read straight through, the presentation can seem disjointed as accounts of battles and politics frequently get interrupted by other sorts of material. The major figures of the War, including Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Jackson, Clara Barton, and many more each receive short biographies together with a timeline of their lives.

The texts are basic on the whole but useful enough to give background who want a basic overview of the subject. The emphasis of dates in the text is valuable to give focus. The texts (the writers are not named) also focus on numbers and statistics with most pages offering in bold some bit of numerical information. Important points in the text tend to be underscored. There is frequent repetition and good cross-referencing back in forth to related sections.

The value of the book lies in the visual history. Many of the reproductions are contemporaneous with the war while others are prints or paintings that represent visualizations of the conflict latter in the Nineteenth Century. These latter works are fascinating both for their subject matter and for showing how people understood and wanted to portray the Civil War in the years which followed it. Even readers who know the conflict well will find a good deal to learn from the pictures in this book. The pictorial and artifactual evidence of the Civil War is itself overwhelming and inexhaustible; and the choices in this book are fresh. Among many other things, I enjoyed the visualizations of the Vicksburg campaign and the lengthy series of paintings known as the "Travis Panorama" which documents the campaigns of the Union Army of the Cumberland. Paintings from this series are scattered throughout the volume and appear together in small reproductions at the book's end (pp. 346-347).

The extent of the pictures and there quality make this volume more than a large book to be browsed at leisure. The pictures will be valuable to newcomers and students of the war alike and the text will be adequate enough for most readers. For readers wishing a single volume account of the Civil War, the best source remains James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States). Readers wanting a much shorter but still good account might be interested in Louis Masur's new book, "The Civil War: a Concise History".

Robin Friedman

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