Great Civil War Heroes and Their Battles – Book Review
Great Civil War Heroes and Their Battles: Sesquicentennial Edition. Walton Rawls, ed. Abbeville Press, 2011. Paperback, 303 pages, Over 200 illustrations $29.95
The American Civil War, perhaps more than any other conflict in history, finds itself in the somewhat odd position of being truly loved. One can therefore hardly be surprised at the sheer volume of books devoted to some aspect or other of it. Because of this overwhelmingly thorough coverage, any new work must justify its existence by bringing something special to the table, and Great Civil War Heroes and Their Battles does just that.
In the book’s introduction, its editor, Walton Rawls, acknowledges the fact that there have been "more than 65,000 volumes on every aspect of the Civil War" produced, and that there are "about 2,000 books currently in print." His work, he argues, is still important because it is something different. It is, as he rightly says, "a unique and enriching introduction to this ever-fascinating conflict, presented in the evocative words and pictures of the generation that experienced it."
Rawls is not simply tooting his own horn, as it were. His certainly is a unique work, so much so that one might at first question its credibility. The book is an illustrated compilation of 50 different Civil War officers’ biographies, taken from a late 19th-century work entitled The Heroes of the Civil War. While this may not seem particularly exceptional in itself, it is the source material of the original work that gives Great Civil War Heroes and Their Battles its unique flavor. The original work used as its main informational source promotional materials from the W. Duke and Sons tobacco company. Undoubtedly, many readers will initially scoff at this, especially in light of the complete demonization of tobacco products in the present day, but once they get past their knee-jerk reactions, they will see and appreciate the detailed, lengthy biographies and strikingly well-rendered illustrations that once adorned the packaging of 19th-century cigarettes.
While the biographies themselves are quite impressive and provide obscure facts and different viewpoints of various battles, the illustrations are by the far the main strength of this book. They provide the reader with pictures of less-famous officers, as well as less-famous pictures of well-known officers. Additionally, the tobacco-print pictures are supported in the book by a wondrous cornucopia of other illustrations taken from period propaganda and ordnance manuals. These depict weapons, uniforms, and battles, among other things.
Great Civil War Heroes and Their Battles does an excellent job of giving equal and admiring coverage to both Northern and Southern officers, a testimony to the brotherly and romanticized feelings about the war that quickly followed in the wake of Reconstruction. The work focuses mostly on army officers, but both navies are briefly represented as well.
At this point comes the eternal book review question: Who should read this book? Because of its source materials and romanticized stance on the war, "serious" scholars may shun it as "popular history," but that’s no reason the rest of us can’t enjoy it. Any Civil War buff will be happy sitting in a favorite chair poring over this book’s detailed biographies while admiring its numerous and impressive illustrations. For their libraries, it is a must.
Nick Kaminsky received an M. A. in American History from Minnesota State University with an emphasis on 19th- and 20th-century American Religious History.