Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: The Civil War: The First Year

Edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears and Aaron Sheehan-Dean

One hundred and fifty years have passed.  Thousands upon thousands of books have been, and continue to be, written.  And yet interest in the American Civil War has never waned. As we approach the beginning of the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the war and its events it is easy to pull a book off the shelf by historians such as Brooks D. Simpson, or Stephen W. Sears, or Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and read through its pages and get an understanding of the war’s history.  Yet, as admirable as these author’s works are, their readers are often at a remove, cast as silent observers, to the events about which they are reading.  While reading these history books one can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for those who lived through those four cataclysmic years of war.

To get a sense of what those war years must have been like it is imperative to read the first-hand accounts written by the people who lived through them.  It is a more difficult task than what it may at first seem, as these documents, letters, diaries, memoirs are published in hundreds of books, and housed in archives all across the country. One could wear out his library card, or put many miles on the odometer of his car to find and read these touchstones of American History. Thankfully, due to the efforts of Brooks D, Simpson, Stephen W. Sears and Aaron Sheehan-Dean, editors of “The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It,” we have a single volume that we can pull down from the bookshelf filled with primary source material.

Culled from thousands of documents, letters, diaries, speeches, military reports, newspaper articles and memoirs, the editors have included in their work the most literary and historically significant of those documents, and presented them in chronological order.  Their book does not present a single point of view, North and South, men and women, black and white, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians are all represented.  The resulting tome is a well balanced multifaceted and broad look at the first year of the first year of the war from the Abraham Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 to January 1862.

Through these primary sources, the barriers have been removed, their readers are transported back across the distance of time to experience the war, day by day as it progressed, to see and feel the war and its events through the eyes, minds and hearts of the people who lived through them.

“The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It” is the first in a four volume series by The Library of America, each volume of which will cover roughly each year of the four year struggle from 1861 to 1865.

ISBN 978-1-59853-088-9, Library of America, © 2011, Hardcover, 840 pages, Maps, Chronology, Bibliographical Notes, Endnotes & Index. $37.50

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