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THE CIVIL WAR IN 50 OBJECTS by Harold Holzer


by Harold Holzer

Pub Date: May 6th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-670-01463-7
Publisher: Viking

A modern dean of Civil War studies offers an illuminating account of the conflict as reflected in material culture.

Holzer (Lincoln on War, 2011, etc.), working through the archives of the New-York (always with the hyphen) Historical Society, unearths treasures, if sometimes grim ones. The first, for instance, is a set of manacles made for a child slave, which serves to establish the incontestable fact that, at least for the North, the war was “somehow about slavery,” as Lincoln said; it also affords Holzer the opportunity to relate that, well after the war ended, some former slaveholders still treated their former property as bonded to them. He closes the book with a copy of the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States—which, Holzer pointedly notes, was not ratified in Mississippi until 1995. Elsewhere, the author writes of Northern vexillomania—i.e., the passionate embrace of the Union flag in public demonstrations in New York and other cities following the fall of Fort Sumter. He also notes that “not every New Yorker volunteered to fight for the Union, or even support the Union cause,” and he follows with the tale of one who died in combat on April 14, 1865—which is to say, after the surrender at Appomattox. Holzer’s choice of objects is spot-on, and the anecdotes they occasion are even more so, particularly when he turns to little-commemorated episodes such as the valiant charge of 14 New York dragoons against a much larger Confederate force (it did not end well for the dragoons) and the effect of the Union blockade on school primers in the South.

A valuable addition to the popular literature of the Civil War, well-conceived and packaged.