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)

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.)

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 laurel leaves from Abraham Lincoln’s funeral bier, and a number of woodcuts, paintings, flags, and pamphlets from the era.

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, and provides a glimpse of “the human side” of the times.

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

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

  1. Beth F says:

    This has been on my list of gifts for Mr. BFR. And so true that the war isn’t over for some people.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I have been hearing a lot about the Civil War lately. This sounds like a fascinating way to explore the war.

    I bet you hated to leaves those shelves behind.

  3. Care says:

    I always learn things when I visit here. Very informative post.

  4. sagustocox says:

    This sounds fascinating. I really loved the artifacts and stories we heard about at Gettysburg several years ago when we went to see Pickett’s Charge re-enacted. I am amazed that it is still re-enacted in the heat in those costumes that are so true to the actual material…

    Definitely a book I’ll have to check out. Btw, when we first moved this way and lived in Va., my husband’s co-workers often called him a Yankee and this was in the 21st Century!

  5. Wow, this one sounds fantastic. Maryland has such a rich Civil War history, and I haven’t visited any of the sites though I’ve been here for 12 years!

  6. 150th…explains all those Gettysburg articles and tell me I am an idiot.
    Btw, if they had continued the Mason-Dixon line straight, we in south jersey would be below it.

  7. Oh, I forgot that you would be losing those bookcases in the move – that must have been painful!

  8. litandlife says:

    My dad taught the Civil War for thirty years – this really would make a marvelous gift for him!

  9. I might have to request a copy of this one from the library!!

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