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Posted on Nov 16, 2011 in Books and Movies

The New York Times: The Complete Civil War 1961-1865 – Book Review

By Richard Story

The New York Times: The Complete Civil War 1861–1865. Edited by Harold Holzer & Craig L. Symonds. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2010. 480 pages and companion DVD, hardcover. $40.

The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is sparking a surge of new books on the war as well as reprintings of classic works published through the years. However, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers decided to bring back a unique voice on the war: The New York Times. The Times not only recorded events for its readers but influenced the course of the war as well. It published over 104,000 eyewitness accounts and articles, as well as the day-to-day minutia of a living city. It recorded the social events, ads of goods for sale and the normal obituaries of those citizens of New York who died of causes other than the war. The New York Times: The Complete Civil War 1861–1865 and its accompanying DVD-ROM lets the modern the reader feel as if he or she has stepped back into time and has all the information, good and bad, that was available to the Times’ readers in the 1860s.

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A foreword by former US President Bill Clinton is followed by the editors’ introduction. The prologue deals with the questions on the coming of the war and how the states and sections of the United States grew antagonistic and, in my opinion, jealous of the prerogatives granted to the various sections of the country. This background information provides context for the meat of the book: 25 chapters containing articles the editors picked as being the most historically significant for the reader.

Instead of trying to fit the war to the book the editors wisely broke the book up to fit the war. In this way readers have the choice to jump articles about their favorite battles or to work through the book like a day-to-day reader. A nicely developed index aids the reader in finding those moments he or she might find the most interesting.

The first chapter covers the longest period of time, the critical seven-month period leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860. After that, the book is broken into different chronological sections, most of which cover just two or three months. Two very tumultuous months get their own chapters: July 1863, with the battle of Gettysburg and the end of the Vicksburg campaign, and May 1864 with the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House and the start of Sherman’s March on Atlanta. Finally, the book ends with an epilogue that looks at the question of what to do with the freed slaves and how to integrate them into society.

The book includes the yearly chronology that the New York Times published at the end of each year from 1861 through 1864. No such chronology of events related to the war was published in 1865, but one has been created for this book, using the style and voice of the New York Times in the mid-nineteenth century. To me, these chronologies are among the finest I have ever read. Not only is the month and day recorded with major events, but the events are recorded in such a concise way that it is an invaluable reference in itself.

The book is well edited, bringing important articles to the fore to help the modern reader understand how the New York Times reported and influenced the people of New York—indeed, of America—during the course of the war. The editors’ comments used to explain points a modern reader might not understand, however, gave me problems. While I salute their intention to minimize the intrusion into the pages of the book, the use of black ink in a gray-shaded box containing small print was nearly impossible for me to read even with a magnifying glass. Even the small text with the illustrations, which are plentiful and of good quality, proved troublesome to read. However, neither proved to be such a distraction or hindrance that I would not recommend this book for the general public. Technically, it is well printed with no typos, ink stains or missing pages and is robustly put together to handle frequent reading and reference checks.

In addition to the printed work, a DVD is included containing articles, opinions, and editorials printed in the New York Times during the war but not published in the book. To me, this represented a fascinating look at New York during that time. From social events to lists of arriving ships to casualty lists following battles published were fascinating.

While randomly jumping around on the DVD I noticed two things in one casualty list that struck me, as a modern reader. The first was that all the white casualties were listed before the black. Even immigrant whites were listed before the blacks—which is remarkable because the Nativist movement, which was still alive and well during that time period although not as popular as it had been in the previous decade, held that only native-born Americans are good Americans. Also on this particular list was the listing of a man killed with the position of Colored Servant. Now as a historian and from the South this raised a red flag for me. I needed to know more about this man. Was he an escaped slave traveling with/through the Union Army when killed? Was he a slave from one of the slave holding northern states traveling with his Master when killed? Or was he simply hired on to be a laborer/teamster/man servant by the Army or an Officer and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? I needed/wanted to know but, alas, only his family would have known.

The DVD is formatted to be usable by both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Both a simple-search and advanced-search function is included, but on my copy the simple-search feature constantly failed to work and always produced a null result. However the advanced search worked better most of the time, though occasionally I got a weird result back—but I am willing to admit that my search terms in the advanced search might have caused the problem with the results. Despite these minor flaws I was truly entranced in submerging myself back in the days of old New York. To me the DVD alone was worth the price of the book.

Combined, the book and DVD represent a unique look at the American Civil War. While the set has very minor flaws, none of them would stop me from recommending the book/DVD set. In fact, I would say The New York Times: The Complete Civil War 1861–1865 is a MUST HAVE. This set should be on every reference shelf of any respectable library, be it public, private or governmental. With a list price of $40 it is extremely affordable. If you want to see the American Civil War through a new set of eyes, get this book now.

About the Author

Richard Story is a disabled and retired salesman. He is a graduate of Kennesaw State University with a BS (Honors) in Political Science and a Master’s in Public Administration. A life-long student of modern military history and technology, he is the son of a career military man whose first wartime assignment was with the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division of Patton’s 3rd Army.

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