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The Civil War in 50 Objects

The Civil War in 50 Objects - Eric Foner, Harold Holzer, New-York Historical Society This book takes a fascinating approach to civil war history, progressing generally chronologically but with each chapter focused on a particular artifact. As the goodreads description states, the objects include everything “from a soldier’s diary with the pencil still attached to John Brown’s pike, the Emancipation Proclamation, a Confederate Palmetto flag, and the leaves from Abraham Lincoln’s bier”. Each chapter talks about both broader themes and personal stories that the artifacts connect to.

At first, I was hesitant to pick this up for fear it would be a dry cataloguing of objects, but I heard about it from several people and decided it was worth a try. As you can tell from my rating, I was very glad I gave it a chance! I could tell from the moment I opened the book that it was going to be good. First of all, this is just a beautiful book. The paper felt and smelled nice; the pictures were gorgeous; and the font was large and easy to read. As I read my way to a deeper analysis, I was also impressed by the organization. Although broad themes relating to the entirety of the war were discussed for most objects, the flow still felt chronological. While a timeline of battles wasn’t the point of this book, I did end the book with a better feel for the order of the events of the civil war.

My favorite thing about this book was the combination of looking at the big picture and at individual stories. I’ve recently read some books that really capture the feel of an era (The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England) and I love that. It’s amazing to feel (correctly or not!) that you’ve begun to understand what it would have been like to live in a particualr time period. This book gave me that feeling. I especially liked the revelation of the issues that would have been on people’s minds at the time. I also love non-fiction that focuses on the human element, since this is almost universily interesting no matter the official topic of a book. The stories attached to each object in this collection were touching and contributed a personal side to this story. Highly recommended.

This review first published Doing Dewey.