Book reviews: Illustrating the Civil War


Published in The Courier-Journal, Nov. 25, 2011

Is there anything new to say about the American Civil War? You might be surprised.

A quartet of new large-format books commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war with a freshened collection of stories, photos and documents. Each one retells the stories of the war’s most significant battles, from Shiloh and Perryville to Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. But they also look beyond the battlefields to tell the stories of the people and personalities.

For example, in “Discovering The Civil War,” by the National Archives Experience’s “Discovering the Civil War” Team, we meet Sarah Edmonds, one of several women who passed as men in order to enlist and fight with the men. Edmonds fought for two years with a Michigan regiment, then had to fight the federal government to qualify for a soldier’s pension.

The book is the companion to a traveling exhibit created by the National Archives. It’s stocked with images of Civil War documents, including enlistment papers, telegrams and handwritten letters. There’s an image of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that abolished slavery, along with a petition signed by 170 black men from Kentucky who fought for the Union asking that they be given the right to vote.

Time’s “The Civil War: An Illustrated History,” by Kelly Knauer and the editors of Time, covers the full scope of the war, from the political turmoil that brought Lincoln to the White House to the fall of Richmond and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and does it in modern magazine format with short articles and plenty of charts, graphics, photos and illustrations.

But it also looks at less familiar areas of the war, such as the roles of women and African Americans and the navy battles fought on America’s rivers. A section about new technology explored during the war has images of the first submarines and spy balloons while photos of soldiers cooking, bathing and suffering illustrate camp life and the challenges of medicine in field hospitals.

“The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War,” by Margaret E. Wagner, is a detailed and deliberate chronicle of the war with a paragraph or two about major events such as the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Mobile Bay. But it also tells the tale of Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy who was arrested while trying to deliver letters to England.

Several of the events are framed in Lincoln’s own words, drawn from letters to his generals and to friends of family members. In one letter to Mary Todd, who was visiting New York, he broke the news that her half sister’s husband, Confederate Gen. Ben Hardin Helm of Kentucky, had been killed in the fighting around Chattanooga.

Perhaps the best of the lot is “The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War,” by James Robertson and Neil Kagan.

The book pairs about 130 short stories by Virginia historian Robertson with sparkling illustrations compiled by Kagan, a book designer who won design awards for his previous Civil War books.

Robertson finds interesting stories in unexpected places. He profiles Stonewall Jackson’s map maker and a Union doctor who created the first ambulance corps. He examines the history of the Rebel Yell, explains how troops were fed, and pays tribute to the war’s unsung heroes: its legions of horses and mules.

Discovering The Civil War
By the National Archives Experience’s “Discovering the Civil War” Team
D Giles Ltd. 208 pp.; $44.95

The Civil War: An Illustrated History
By Kelly Knauer and the editors of Time
Time 208 pp.; $29.95

The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War

By Margaret E. Wagner
Little, Brown and Co. 254 pp.; $35

The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War

By James Robertson and Neil Kagan
National Geographic 352 pp.; $40

Even dogs get their due in the story of Sallie, a terrier who followed a Pennsylvania regiment through battles at Antietam and Chancellorsville before falling at Hatcher’s Run.

Like the best “coffee-table books,” “The Untold Civil War” is both entertaining and informative — and it’s digestible in small bites. After just half an hour of casual reading, you may not know which side won the war’s many battles, but you’ll have a better understanding of the men who fought them.

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