Book Review: The Civil War Source Book (Philip Katcher) : CWT

8/12/2001 • Andersonville Prison Camp, Mag: Civil War Times Reviews

The Civil War Source Book, by Philip Katcher, Facts on File, 11 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10001-2006, 318 pages, $35.

While working on this review, I participated in a panel discussion with Civil War historians James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Bob Krick, and Gordon Rhea. I handed them a copy of The Civil War Source Book to skim through and asked if they knew anything about the book (published in 1992, but not reviewed in these pages at the time) or its author, Philip Katcher. None of them did. This may reflect badly on our scholarly awareness, but in my opinion, it does not. It is hard to imagine why a professional historian would need this volume. Still, there is much to be said in its favor. Katcher is, after all, the author-compiler of an impressive list of other Civil War reference works, including the four volumes of American Civil War Armies.

By simply reading the Source Book from cover to cover, you can get a rather good introduction to the Civil War. But other good introductions are available, and given the errors herein, you may be better advised to seek out one of the others. (I have in mind especially Charlie Roland’s An American Iliad and my own Shades of Blue and Gray.) On the other hand, if you use the Source Book as a reference tool, be warned that the scattered egregious errors render it appropriate to double-check facts with other sources.

Now, an excellent photograph is an excellent photograph, and there are a great many of them here. Likewise, a well-construed sketch or diagram is just that, and there are a great many of them, too. Further, well-selected pithy or moving passages from other fine books on Civil War topics are well worthwhile, and there are several of them scattered throughout. Katcher is a rather good writer, too, so it is pleasant to pore over his prose. Apparently, he is a collector of considerable distinction, and many of the artifacts and photographs shown here are from his personal collection.

But Katcher seems to be a broadly read, hard-working (possibly indefatigable) Civil War enthusiast with absolutely no training as a historian. He has no restraint or judiciousness that would cause him to question and evaluate. It seems not to matter where any work stands in relation to others on the same topic. Great books, good books, so-so books, and poor books are accorded equal status.

Now, about the errors, to name but a few. Katcher should be ashamed of himself for identifying Henry Wirz as commandant of Camp Sumter instead of Andersonville Prison. In the biographical sketch section, far and away the most poorly constructed and least useful part of the book, Katcher introduces us to George B. McClellan incorrectly as “McClennan.” He states that Jefferson Davis was chosen for a six-year term as president of the Confederacy in 1861 and that he died at his home “Beauvior,” near Biloxi, Mississippi. Actually, Davis was chosen provisional president in 1861 and was elected for a six-year term in 1862. He died in New Orleans.

All that said, there is a lot of good, useful, and important material in this book. The “Sources” section at the end is rather impressive and all in all good. It is especially noteworthy that Katcher included a subsection on the graphic arts. I was pleased also to find a subsection on videos, although it is disappointingly brief. Finally, Katcher is wrong in his suggestion that reenactment began in the 1950s. Reenactments began just a few years after the war’s end, and the first reenactors (and enthusiastic they were, too!) were the veterans themselves.

Herman Hattaway
University of Missouri–Kansas City