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Posted on Jun 20, 2013 in Books and Movies

The Civil War: The Third Year – Book Review

By Neal West

The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Edited by Brooks D. Simpson. The Library of America, 2013. Hardback; $40.00.

The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It is the latest volume in a collection of writings from our turbulent past. Each Brooks Simpson–edited volume covers roughly a year in the history of the American Civil War, as written by those who lived it.

Historical anthologies are sometimes difficult to review. In most non-fiction works, a reviewer starts by reading the author’s introduction or preface to determine the book’s thesis. Believe it or not, most non-fiction—especially histories—do indeed have a thesis, an argument, to make and you will likely find it in the introduction where the author will attempt to convince the reader that this history is different and worth paying money to find out how.

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Anthologies, however, usually do not have a stated objective or hypothesis. That does not mean they do not have one, of course. An editor can still convey a point of view or argument simply by the choices of what to include, or leave out of, a compilation.

Brooks D. Simpson’s simple goal is contained in his preface: to present the reader with 149 “broad and balanced” authoritative sources—diaries, letters, speeches, reports, newspaper clippings, memoirs, poems, and public papers—”that encompasses military and political events and their social and personal reverberations.” Has Mr. Simpson met this goal?

Overall, the choice of material is indeed broad and striking. The usual figures are represented—Lincoln, Grant, Meade, Lee, Davis, Sherman, all make the cut. Much of the information is not new, but seeing it in the context as it was written is both useful and interesting.

For this reader, letters and diaries are the most powerful window into the thoughts and feelings of those most affected by our most cataclysmic era. Just as today, Civil War era military reports, newspaper articles, public speeches, letters to hometown papers, etc. contained bias, propaganda, and/or self-serving content and have to be read with that in mind. Only in the private correspondences, from a son to a mother or a wife to a husband, do you see the truth; unvarnished and nasty sometimes, but still truth.

Kate Stone’s description of her family leaving their home and possessions behind, while being menaced by black Union soldiers and former slaves, was a harrowing story and a point of view often missing from histories of the war. Equally stirring are writings of the common soldiers such as Taylor Pierce (22nd Iowa), Charles C. Pierce, Jr. (Chatham Artillery), and Gettysburg nurse Cornelia Hancock (no relation to W. S. Hancock).

The almost 150 entries, covering January 1863–March 1864, satisfy Simpson’s goal of covering a broad swath of topics; politics, combat, economics, foreign relations, opinion, religion, civil liberties, slavery, freedom—all are given their due through the voices of a quality cast of characters.

However, as mentioned, one of the stated goals of The Third Year was to “shape a narrative that is both broad and balanced in scope.” I feel that The Third Year misses its goal of balance. I find it difficult to believe, with the vast numbers of words put to paper by a people well aware of the significance of their times, that so few of them—only 29% of The Third Year’s 149 entries—represent the Southern point of view. This seems to be an unusually low number considering the book’s intent. I’d be curious to see if the numbers were skewed in the other direction in either of the first two volumes of the series.

The Third Year is, I feel, written for the Civil War buff; those deeply familiar with the Civil War era. Although each entry is prefaced by an introduction, that information just briefly sets up the entry. Casual readers may be confused by terms, names, places, etc. mentioned as the various entries are presented with only the barest of editorial alterations. While the volume does have a hefty endnote section, the entries themselves do not have a reference mark. The endnotes contain only the page and line number. This is an unusual system that irritates this reader as you won’t know there is a note unless you go searching for it.

However, in toto, The Civil War: The Third Year still remains a valuable research tool. The book is printed on acid-free paper with sewn bindings and covered with woven rayon cloth. Biographical entries of the various authors are included at the end of the book (Why at the end and not along with the introductions to the entries?) as well as a thorough index and the aforementioned endnotes.

Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years, too many cats, and a speedy miniature pincher aptly named “Blitz.” Mr. West volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield conducting a few tours and demonstrating historic weapons. He received a Bachelor’s in American Military History and a Master’s in Military History, Civil War concentration, both conferred by American Military University. Neal is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com and operates AnotherBullRun.com.

 

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