The Civil War in 50 Objects


The American companion to A History of the World in 100 Objects: A fresh, visual perspective on the Civil War

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, here is a unique and surprisingly intimate look at the Civil War.

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer sheds new light on the war by examining fifty objects from the...

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The Civil War in 50 Objects

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The American companion to A History of the World in 100 Objects: A fresh, visual perspective on the Civil War

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, here is a unique and surprisingly intimate look at the Civil War.

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer sheds new light on the war by examining fifty objects from the New-York Historical Society’s acclaimed collection. A daguerreotype of an elderly, dignified ex-slave, whose unblinking stare still mesmerizes; a soldier’s footlocker still packed with its contents; Grant’s handwritten terms of surrender at Appomattox—the stories these objects tell are rich, poignant, sometimes painful, and always fascinating. They illuminate the conflict from all perspectives—Union and Confederate, military and civilian, black and white, male and female—and give readers a deeply human sense of the war.

With an introduction from Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner and more than eighty photographs, The Civil War in 50 Objects is the perfect companion for readers and history fans to commemorate the 150th anniversaries of both the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lincoln scholar Holzer and the New-York Historical Society scour the museum's archives to fashion an object-oriented Civil War history. Presented in chronological order, the objects serve as a means for Holzer to discuss the history of the war: he begins with "bilboes", shackles for child slaves, and moves to paintings, newspapers, buttons, and flag fragments. The most interesting moments arise when Holzer opens up little-known parts of history. The draft riots of 1863 are represented by the tumbler used to draw names for military service and a burnt Bible recovered from the ashes of an orphanage. There is a ticket to one of many fund-raisers for those injured in battle. On the whole, the objects are somewhat obvious: a drum, leaves from Lincoln's funeral, diary entries and letters. As a focal point, the book uses New York's fickle role in the war—the city tried to secede alongside the South before reluctantly siding with the Union—and offers a fresh take on a well-trod topic. However, most of these objects relate stories we already know and Holzer's short accompanying bios provide little new insight; it will be welcomed in classrooms and by those who know only the basics of the war. (May)
Library Journal
Through narratives on pieces from the collections of the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS), of which he is a fellow, Holzer (Lincoln at Cooper Union) suggests that history is the sum of evidence-based stories. Out of an enormous number of Civil War-related pieces at the N-YHS, Holzer's selections include a slave's shackles; a Union soldier's diary; a model of the ironclad USS Monitor; Lincoln's scribbled musings on his reelection chances; a carbon copy of General Grant's handwritten terms of surrender presented to General Lee; and a Confederate POW newspaper. As a whole, the book demonstrates the educational role of museums and the invaluable contributions made by their seasoned interpreters. Meredith Brown's Touching America's History is a similar treatment, but focuses on family heirlooms, while Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects used the British Museum's holdings as its basis. VERDICT This illustrated presentation can be used by both onsite and would-be visitors and may inspire others to conduct similar research. It will be a popular choice for museum curators and docents as well as history enthusiasts, especially during the Civil War's sesquicentennial. [Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection (Oct. 2013) will show Civil War history through 150 objects in its collections.—Ed.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
A modern dean of Civil War studies offers an illuminating account of the conflict as reflected in material culture. Holzer (Lincoln on War, 2011, etc.), working through the archives of the New-York (always with the hyphen) Historical Society, unearths treasures, if sometimes grim ones. The first, for instance, is a set of manacles made for a child slave, which serves to establish the incontestable fact that, at least for the North, the war was "somehow about slavery," as Lincoln said; it also affords Holzer the opportunity to relate that, well after the war ended, some former slaveholders still treated their former property as bonded to them. He closes the book with a copy of the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States--which, Holzer pointedly notes, was not ratified in Mississippi until 1995. Elsewhere, the author writes of Northern vexillomania--i.e., the passionate embrace of the Union flag in public demonstrations in New York and other cities following the fall of Fort Sumter. He also notes that "not every New Yorker volunteered to fight for the Union, or even support the Union cause," and he follows with the tale of one who died in combat on April 14, 1865--which is to say, after the surrender at Appomattox. Holzer's choice of objects is spot-on, and the anecdotes they occasion are even more so, particularly when he turns to little-commemorated episodes such as the valiant charge of 14 New York dragoons against a much larger Confederate force (it did not end well for the dragoons) and the effect of the Union blockade on school primers in the South. A valuable addition to the popular literature of the Civil War, well-conceived and packaged.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670014637
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/2/2013
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 421,011
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Holzer has written or edited more than forty books on Lincoln and the Civil War era. He is currently a senior vice president at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society. He lives in New York City.

The New-York Historical Society is the oldest museum in New York City, and one of the country’s pre-eminent cultural institutions.

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