Book Review: The Civil War Chronicle (edited by J. Matthew Gallman) and The Civil War: A History in Documents (edited by Rachel Filene Seidman): CWT

The Civil War Chronicle, edited by J. Matthew Gallman, Crown, 544 pages, $39.95 and The Civil War: A History in Documents, edited by Rachel Filene Seidman, Oxford, 208 pages, $30.

The Civil War brought unparalleled bloodshed to America. It became the singular, overwhelming experience for a generation of the nation’s citizenry. Its effects seared themselves into the country’s soul, touching every village, town, and city. From the conflict’s beginning, Americans reacted to it, in part, with an outpouring of words. For the first time in the nation’s history, a war was chronicled in detail as events transpired.

As the first generation of literate Americans went to war, its members penned accounts in diaries, letters, newspapers, and magazines. The speeches of politicians, official reports by generals, observations by correspondents, and the work of artists became available quickly and in massive numbers to citizens at home and soldiers in the field. Those men in uniform poured forth a flood of letters and confided thoughts to diaries. The staggering sum of written items is one of the conflict’s finest legacies.

Although historians strive with commendable effort to recapture the past, they cannot quite duplicate the voices of those who have gone before and put words on paper. In the midst of a national crisis such as the Civil War, it seems as if the voices are sharper, more resonant. Time has not dulled the voices; it has only enriched their clarity and tone.

The Civil War Chronicle and The Civil War: A History in Documents offer us snatches of those voices. Each work consists of primary, contemporary documents of the era from a wide spectrum of society. In most cases, however, the documents are only excerpts from lengthier writings.

The Civil War, edited by Rachel Filene Seidman, attempts to answer the question of why the war happened. Consequently, its selected documents cover a broader time frame, from the antebellum years, through the conflict, to the end of Reconstruction. It is a new volume in the publisher’s series called Pages From History.

Seidman asserts that “at the very core of the conflict lay what was known as ‘the peculiar institution,’ or slavery.” The slaves’ story, according to the editor, “forms the most dramatic and important narrative of the war.” In turn, many of the documents are related to slavery and the slaves’ sagas. To the editor, it is evident why the storm of civil war came to America.

The majority of the selected writings come from Northerners. In the section “The Battlefield,” for instance, every account is that of a Union soldier or officer. Although the views of Southerners are not ignored, there could have been a better balance between the sections, especially considering that the book purports to reveal “not only what happened, but also how Americans at the time perceived these immensely important events.”

In general, the documents in the book follow a chronological order. Very few of the writings are about combat or individual battles; the concentration is primarily on social and political events. The brief chapter “Images of War” focuses on photographs.

The Civil War Chronicle, edited by J. Matthew Gallman, is a more inclusive work than Seidman’s book. Gallman uses a chronological approach, month by month from November 1860 to May 1865. He has selected important days in each month and provided a document for each of them. He includes more voices and more varied ones than Seidman does. The bulk of the documents he has chosen deal with military and political events. He does not ignore civilian voices, but they are a distinct minority. Although he does not provide a bibliography, nearly all the selections are taken from published works. Unfortunately, one of the selections is Confederate General John Gordon’s account of his encounter with wounded Union General Francis Barlow at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Modern scholarship has shown that the famous “Gordon-Barlow Incident” never occurred. Gordon apparently fabricated it.

In any book of collected writings, there is an unevenness to the quality of the prose. In this case, that inconsistency makes it starkly evident that among all of the hundreds of voices, one sings with an unmatched eloquence–that of Abraham Lincoln. Thankfully, Gallman has chosen to present the entire texts of the included Lincoln writings.

Both Seidman and Gallman have gathered an impressive array of primary sources for each of their works. Seidman’s documents seem to follow a theme–slavery and its role during the terrible era of Civil War and the reconstruction of the nation. Gallman offers a broader interpretation that focuses more on the military and the politics of the conflict itself.

For readers seeking a narrative ac-count of the Civil War era, this pair of books will not provide it. Of the two works, however, Gallman’s is much better at creating narrative links.

What both books offer are numerous examples of primary sources, and primary sources and documents are the basis for almost all good history. As a teacher, I believe these books provide fine supplemental reference works that could be used in history courses. The words of those who lived through momentous times echo down through time. To return to the past with them is to touch it as closely as one can ever expect. Both of these books allow readers to sit for a while with companions long gone.

Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania

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