Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"I'll take the Civil War for $600, Alex"

Armchair Reader Civil War: Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray

I have often been told I know a lot about the Civil War. I do not. Granted, I know more Civil War history than the average American walking down the street. What I do know is a lot of Civil War trivia. If I were to write a book about the Civil War, it would likely be a book of Civil War trivia… but wait, that’s already been done: Armchair Reader Civil War: Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray.

For those who love trivia or those who know little about the American Civil War this book is for you. You say you don’t like to read but would like to learn about the Civil War? Well then you are also in luck. This book offers short articles about battles and generals, political & historical figures, as well as the common soldier both North and south which are easily read if you have five minutes or five hours and its articles cover the entire spectrum of the Civil War experience.

However, this book does have its problems. First is its structure; there isn’t one. The articles are somewhat scattershot, there is no organization to them at all, they are not grouped together by any means, not by topic or timeline, but rather this book seems to have been put together in the order in which the articles came in.

Second, there is no documentation. Footnotes would have been preferable, but I would have taken endnotes and been completely satisfied. This book has neither, and there in lies the problem of credibility. For example:

In an article entitled “The Slow Side of General Rosecrans” it is stated that Union General, William S. Rosecrans, was the great grandson of Stephen Hopkins, signer of The Declaration of Independence. I could find no evidence to positively support this statement as fact, there are numerous websites that report the same fact, but the problem is that almost none of them site their sources and when they do, it often times is another website that didn’t site its source. I’ve spent many hours trying to walk back this statement of fact, websites, as I’ve already stated are not of that much use, and the on-line genealogical databases that I have searched do not support this fact. Even moving to printed sources didn’t help as William A. Lamers & Larry J. Daniel’s book about Rosecrans, “The Edge of Glory,” states that his maternal grandfather, Timothy Hopkins, served in the Connecticut line and was a “relative” of Governor Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island and signer of The Declaration of Independence. Another printed source, “Annals of the Army of the Cumberland,” by John Fitch, states that Rosecrans’ mother was the “daughter of Stephen and Mary Hopkins of Wyoming, Luzerne county, Pennsylvania,” but doesn’t go any farther, and a third printed source, Allen Rosenkrans’, “The Rosenkrans Family in Europe and America,” states that Crandall Rosecrans, the general’s father, married Jemima Hopkins, the daughter of Timothy Hopkins and Phebe Nesbitt, and again doesn’t go any farther than the general’s grandparents. So the fact that General William S. Rosecrans is the great-grandson of Stephen Hopkins the Signer of the Declaration of Independence is in contention… so why include it in the book at all… unless the author of the article and the editor of the book did not bother to check. More research is needed to verify exact the relationship, if any at all, between General William S. Rosecrans and Governor Stephen Hopkins (and for those of you who are wondering “Why in the world would he bother to look that up?” I am a descendant of Mayflower passenger, Stephen Hopkins, and I was curious to find a connection… there isn’t).

In another error, The Gettysburg Address is misquoted, not once, but twice. The first in an article entitled “Lincoln’s Battlefield Visits,” in which Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it far above our poor power to add or detract,” which completely butchers the rhythm and cadence of Lincoln’s writing. The true and accurate quote should have read: “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” In a second article, “Just A Few Remarks,” the text of Lincoln’s most famous speech is quoted in full… well almost: “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live,” having omitted the word “here” from the phrase “for those who here gave their lives.” I consulted two other published texts of the speech and both include the word “here.” You may also find digital copies of the Address and its drafts at The Papers of Abraham Lincoln website. For a text as famous (arguably one of the most famous speeches in all of recorded history) and so readily available, to misquote it is nearly an unforgivable sin. Again in both instances this is something that should have been caught but the project’s editor, but was not.

Third, the biographical article on J.E.B. Stuart, “Jeb Stuart Rides,” neglects to mention the single, most controversial aspect of the famed cavalry leader’s career: his late arrival during the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians have for years debated the effects of Stuart’s tardiness at Gettysburg. In fact the Battle of Gettysburg is not even mentioned in the article, a stunning omission.

Lastly is the book’s subtitle: “Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray.” Quite frankly, there is nothing in this book that hasn’t been published elsewhere. With “untold” in the title one would expect to read articles about subjects that have never before been written about, or new material on a subject, or at the very least a fresh look at a person, place, or event from another previously unpublished perspective. Between the covers of “Armchair Reader Civil War: Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray,” you will find nothing that cannot be found in at least half a dozen previously published texts about the Civil War… the convenience here being that the information is in one book and not in five, ten or twenty volumes.

In the end, this book is nothing more or less than what it is: a book of Civil War trivia. Will you read and enjoy it? Likely. Will you learn something from it? Possibly. Should you believe everything written within its covers? As with any book, absolutely not. This book isn’t for the Civil War buff. This book is for a person with a passing interest in the Civil War who has never studied the war, its battles or the people who lived through it. Would I recommend it? Sure. Buy it, read it and if something within its covers interests you the by all means pick up another book and continue reading about said topic… this book is a great springboard to use for people who don’t know much about the American Civil War and want to learn more… I just wish it had footnotes and a bibliography.

EDIT: Brett Schulte at TOCWOC has recently posted his review of this book and draws many of the same conclusions as I. May 6, 2008

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