Reviewed by Partick Alan
By Jay Wertz
Civil War enthusiasts are unable to rest until everyone they know stops tolerating their mania and starts sharing it. It is the great crusade that lies at the heart of the hobby, a mission that many a Civil War Times reader has sworn on a well-thumbed copy of Lee’s Lieutenants or A Stillness at Appomattox to carry out. The gift-giving season provides an ideal opportunity for quiet subversion, and The Civil War Experience is well designed for the task.
Measuring 12 inches by 10 1/2 inches, this slip-covered album narrates the entire course of the war in a series of full-color tableaux that skillfully interweave text, maps and period images. A heavy concentration of military content is contextualized by presentations detailing political and social aspects of the conflict. In a refreshing change from many introductory studies, full attention is given to the Western theater, though some purists inevitably will grumble that Gettysburg receives twice as much space (complete with the now-requisite picture of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain) as any other battle. It manages to provide a surprisingly high concentration of information without ever overwhelming the reader. (Do not be deceived by the book’s low page count; Wertz’s effort justifies the index that the publishers chose to include.) The result is an offering that invites its audience to return to its pages for multiple readings.
Yet it is not simply a book. As the title promises, it is a multiformat experience that engages a number of the senses. Interspersed throughout the pages are 30 facsimile reproductions of printed documents — many removable — representing the richness of Civil War sources, such as Robert E. Lee’s letter of resignation from the U.S. Army, the telegram from Robert Anderson announcing the surrender of Fort Sumter, an Appomattox parole slip and an edition of a siege-era Vicksburg newspaper printed on wallpaper—complete with a wallpaper pattern on the back. (As an exercise in book production alone, the finished product is a marvel.) A 70-minute audio CD nestled in the front cover provides dramatic readings of first-person accounts from civilians and soldiers, generals and privates.
As with any undertaking this complex, not every element is flawlessly executed. A few images are reproduced at sizes too small for their level of detail. An 1880s photograph that accompanies a short bio of Jubal Early gives the impression that Lee sent a senior citizen to threaten Washington in the summer of 1864. The note penciled by Isaac Avery as he lay dying is faithfully reproduced right down to the bloodstains; the absence of a translation for this nearly indecipherable scrawl leaves its content an utter mystery to anyone without prior knowledge of his final words: “Tell my Father I died with my face to the enemy.”
Such small imperfections, however, do not mar Wertz’s overall achievement. The Civil War Experience delivers on its promise to excite readers’ curiosity. If you buy it for a friend, be prepared to start loaning out your Civil War books.