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Book Review: Everyday Life during the Civil War (by Michael J. Varhola): CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Everyday Life during the Civil War: A Guide for Writers, Students and Historians, by Michael J. Varhola, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1-800-289-0963, 274 pages, softcover, $16.99.

One hundred and thirty-five years after the last shots were fired, public fascination with the American Civil War continues unabated. The copious outpouring of campaign studies, biographies, memoirs, regimental histories, journals, magazines, documentaries, and novels testifies to that seemingly insatiable interest in our nation's bloodiest conflict. Films like Glory and Gettysburg, the recent Broadway show The Civil War, and the weekend encampments and mock battles staged by thousands of Civil War reenactors indicate just how compelling that period is, firing our passions and stimulating our imaginations. In many ways the era is still accessible to us, in large part because of our proximity to it.

Of course the men and women of the 1860s were very much a product of their time, and for all our modern-day empathy and identification with them, their daily lives were rooted in experiences often far different from our own. In Everyday Life During the Civil War, author Michael Varhola seeks to further our understanding of those 19th-century Americans in what he describes as "a broad-based introduction to the day-to-day conditions, attitudes and events of the period."

An army veteran, experienced journalist, and editor of Living History magazine, Varhola tackles an impressive array of topics: demographics, currency, wages, clothing, dialect, diet, architecture, sanitation, entertainment, vices, and so forth. More than half of the text deals with soldier life, including military structure, technology, flags, uniforms and equipment, rank insignia, rations, slang and idiom, popular songs and poetry. Appendices include a Civil War time line, a list of historical sites, recommended published and internet resources, even information on how to obtain "heirloom seeds" in order to propagate authentic Civil War-era fruits and vegetables.

Everyday Life During the Civil War abounds with interesting tidbits. We learn that a streetcar driver in Washington, D.C., earned $1.50 per day in 1860 and $2.00 in 1863; a clerk in the Confederate War Department had a yearly salary of $3,000; a chicken cost 20 cents; in the South in 1862 and $50 in 1865; by the time of the Civil War there were more than a thousand varieties of tomatoes, though "they were not as smooth and round as modern varieties." Varhola tells us that in 1865, "Vassar College made it mandatory for girls to bathe twice a week"; by the 1850's "urinals were being used by men in urban areas."

Many of these historical tidbits will interest even the most well-read Civil War buff–and prove quite useful for writers whose stories are set in the 1860s. Everyday Life During the Civil War would also seem to have great potential as an adjunct to classroom discussions of the period. But the sheer magnitude of topics that Varhola addresses necessarily limits his ability to explore any of them in detail. Indeed, entire volumes have been written on subjects that Varhola covers in a page or two. Though this book is admittedly a broad overview rather than a scholarly tome, the lack of footnotes is unfortunate, especially as the book contains a number of errors.

In his capsule profile of New Jersey (part of a section dealing with each of the states and territories), Varhola calls Major General George McClellan "a Democrat and son of the State." McClellan was a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, though he did serve as governor of New Jersey after the war. Describing photographic processes of the period, Varhola defines the images called cartes-de-visite as "pornographic cards imported from Europe depicting photographs of nude or scantily clad women." While some cartes-de-visite did feature the equivalent of Civil War centerfolds, the vast majority of them were photographs of soldiers, civilians, or celebrities of the time. An artillery piece captioned as a "Third Ordinance Rifle" is actually a three-inch ordnance rifle. One of the more obvious mistakes is the statement, "Of the total number of combatants who served on both sides, an estimated 620,000 were killed…." In fact that number includes those who perished from disease and other causes.

The section dealing with period clothing contains some statements that purists may argue. In addressing men's attire, Varhola writes, "Foremost among men's accessories were hats, amongst which top hats and derbies predominated." While hats are certainly "accessories" today, rather like cufflinks and tie pins, in the 1860s they were considered very much a part of a man's daily garb. And the derby–or bowler as it was known in England–was not as popular in this country as it was in Britain, certainly not in the early and middle 1860s when varying styles of soft felt hats (porkpie, slouch, and so on) predominated in less formal wear. The assertion that "women whose activities took them near war battlefields were not wearing cumbersome hoop dresses and lace on a daily basis, if at all" is belied by many period photographs of fashionably dressed ladies visiting army encampments, or posed on the fields of Antietam and Gettysburg.

These faults aside, Everyday Life During the Civil War has much to offer those seeking to learn more about the people who endured so much in that tragic, defining time. Hopefully it will serve as an introduction to the period and inspire them to explore these many fascinating aspects in greater depth.

Brian C. Pohanka
Alexandria, Virginia







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