The Civil War in 50 Objects. By Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society. New York: Viking, 2013.
In a fascinating departure from the usual narrative accounts of Civil War history, Harold Holzer has assembled a text in which sundry stories are told using—as points of reference—physical artifacts from the era. Holzer, a Fellow of the New-York Historical Society, author of many books, and winner of a 2008 National Humanities Medal, does a masterful job of recounting details about each object and connecting them to the people and places of the time.
Possibly this refreshing method arises from Holzer’s background; he is not a professional historian, but an avid writer and researcher who has done most of his work on Abraham Lincoln. His approach will no doubt find ready approval among scholars working on popular culture, since it engages localized knowledge about individual relics that evoke particular societal and cultural implications. A partial list includes slave manacles designed for the small wrists of children, Eastman Johnson’s 1859 painting Negro Life at the South, a bronze cast of Lincoln’s right hand, a Confederate “Palmetto” flag, a recruiting poster for the 36th Regiment of the New York Volunteers, a fashionable “Zouave” uniform, a battlefield snare drum used by Union drummer boy Philip Corel, a wooden rotating“draft wheel” used to shuffle draft cards prior to drawing names, a Bible from the ruins of The Colored Orphan Asylum, a Union officer’s footlocker (complete with personal items), a ticket to the New York Metropolitan World’s Fair of 1864, and a propagandistic anti-emancipation lithograph from The New York World entitled The Miscegenation Ball. This last artifact depicts the “horror” of blacks and whites dancing together.
The way the book is organized, of course, leaves Holzer open to criticism about his choices for the top fifty items. Most such criticism would be finicky, but there is perhaps one area that might have been more thoroughly represented, given that this is a book about a war: firearms. The only actual weapon in the book is one of John Brown’s pikes, which he intended to hand out to freed slaves in order that they could fight; even John Brown didn’t think giving them rifles would be a racially-appropriate act. The pike is thus in itself laden with cultural meaning and seems a good choice on Holzer’s part. Nonetheless, in a conflict that saw an early (the Crimean war was a tad beforehand) and sustained use of the Minié ball, the first deployment of the Gatling gun, and the introduction of the Spencer repeating rifle, perhaps an example of some firearm-related artifact would have been suitable. Of course, it may be that the New-York Historical Society has few such weapons in their collection. They do, however, have a brass and leather cartridge box for the Spencer Carbine, as well as an 1863 Remington contract rifle. Nonetheless, these are mere quibbles. The book (especially if digitized) would be an excellent teaching tool.
Jeffrey P. Cain, Ph.D.
Sacred Heart University