Review of “The Civil War in 50 Objects” by Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society

2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought in Pennsylvania from July 1-3, 1863, and which was the inspiration for Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address.”

The Battle of Gettysburg, lithograph (Currier and Ives/Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Gettysburg, lithograph (Currier and Ives/Wikimedia Commons)

A number of wonderful books were created for this occasion, some of which take advantage of a similar idea: focusing on artifacts, documents and other materials as a way to retell the story in a fresh way.

The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer and The New-York Historical Society is one of these (and yes, the hyphen belongs in the title of the museum!)

TheCivilWarIn50Objects

This beautifully produced book examines the Civil War via objects from that era housed in the New-York Historical Society. Essays are organized around materials illustrating a theme, such as a discussion of slavery that highlights a small pair of wrist shackles sized to fit an infant slave. (Holzer observes, “…the cruelty or fear that inspired these particular contraptions is almost incomprehensible.”)

Slave Shackles, New-York Historical Society

Slave Shackles, New-York Historical Society

Some of the other objects featured include a pike believed to have been used in John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, Grant’s handwritten terms of surrender at Appomattox, framed leaves from Abraham Lincoln’s funeral bier, and a number of woodcuts, paintings, flags, and pamphlets from the time.

John Brown's Blessing,1867, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, New-York Historical Society

John Brown’s Blessing,1867, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, New-York Historical Society

There are great stories in this book, some of them little-known anecdotes, and all of them informative and evocative of a time we can’t seem to forget. In fact, as the superb historian Eric Foner notes in his amazingly pithy yet comprehensive introduction, many of the questions raised back then remain unanswered and controversial still today. “In that sense,” he says, “the Civil War is not yet over.”

So this book is important, since the Civil War remains relevant in many ways, even 150 years after the critical Battle of Gettysburg.

Evaluation: This book would make a wonderful gift for the history buffs in your life. While some details are a little glossed over, I don’t think in-depth coverage is the purpose of this book. Rather, it is a potpourri that you can pick up and put down as you will.

Published by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2013

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