From the annals of the New York Times Opinionator column and timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Brown University historian Widmer has pieced together a selection for readers both mildly and deeply interested in the Civil War. Did you know that four slave-holding states remained in the Union after the Civil War began? That President Lincoln was elected without a single electoral vote from the South? Or that West Virginia came into existence when the western part of Virginia "seceded from secession"? Tidbits like these populate pages culled from brief essays in the paper's online column, and the book's format allows for smaller, captivating stories to be told—the kind that are often over-looked in epic histories—like Lincoln's last visit with his step-mother or how Nick Biddle, an African-American servant to a captain in the Union Army, might have been the first to shed blood in hostility during the war. Well-known historians such as Ken Burns, Stephanie McCurry and Adam Goodheart are all represented in this absorbing and important series. B&W photos. (June)
From the annals of the
New York Times Opinionator column and timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Brown University historian Widmer has pieced together a selection for readers both mildly and deeply interested in the Civil War. Did you know that four slave-holding states remained in the Union after the Civil War began? That President Lincoln was elected without a single electoral vote from the South? Or that West Virginia came into existence when the western part of Virginia "seceded from secession"? Tidbits like these populate pages culled from brief essays in the paper's online column, and the book's format allows for smaller, captivating stories to be told-the kind that are often over-looked in epic histories-like Lincoln's last visit with his step-mother or how Nick Biddle, an African-American servant to a captain in the Union Army, might have been the first to shed blood in hostility during the war. Well-known historians such as Ken Burns, Stephanie McCurry and Adam Goodheart are all represented in this absorbing and important series. B&W photos.
In November 2010, the
New York Times opened a website, Disunion, in which Civil War scholars, journalists, and amateur historians have continued to contribute hundreds of essays, biographical sketches, and general commentary about our greatest national trial. Widmer, a historian at Brown University, has selected 106 of these articles, which proceed chronologically from the election of Lincoln to the Emancipation Proclamation. In the first grouping of essays, various aspects of the secession crisis are examined, including a searing portrait of President Buchanan and an often neglected view of antisecession Southerners. In another grouping, a particularly intriguing essay explores Lincoln's "audacious plan" to use government bonds to eliminate slavery in the border states. As a whole, the essays are well written, wide ranging and very informative, even for many Civil War specialists. This work will be an ideal addition to Civil War collections for both public and academic libraries.
In his autobiographical "Specimen Days & Collect" (1882) Walt Whitman observed that the Confederates' firing on Fort Sumter sparked "the volcanic upheaval of the nation" and "at once substantially settled the question of disunion." Whitman's book consisted of brief, titled fragments on his war experiences, what readers in the digital age might term blogs.
Whitman would have welcomed "The New York Times: Disunion," edited by Brown University historian Ted Widmer. His book includes 106 articles gleaned from more than 400 original blogs from the Times' Opinionator website.
The posts collected by Widmer disseminate scholarship more dynamically, less elaborately than academic journals do. They feature "the snap, crackle and pop of lively online writing," he notes, "with quick links, illustrations and a spirit of experimentation."
The blogs – now print essays – underscore contingency, unpredictability and variety during the first two years of America's bloodiest war. They examine its international impact, its innumerable personalities, its rich social and technological history, and also many obscure aspects of the war.
For example, in "From San Marino, With Love," Don H. Doyle rescues from obscurity President Abraham Lincoln's diplomatic communiqués during the secession crisis with the leaders of the tiny nation San Marino. Perched atop the Apennine Mountains on the Adriatic side of the Italian peninsula, San Marino, founded in 301 A.D., was the oldest surviving republic in the world.
"We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, which you are now suffering," wrote San Marino's Regent Captains, "therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions." Touched by the regents' letter, Lincoln responded: "You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing." Anticipating the language of his Gettysburg Address delivered 1 1/2 years later, Lincoln added, "It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction. I have faith in a good result."
Once the war erupted, Lincoln also had to hone his diplomatic skills at home. When, in August 1861, Gen. John C. Frémont issued what Michael Fellman terms "The First Emancipation Proclamation," unilaterally subjecting the Union Western Department to martial law and emancipating Missouri slaves, Lincoln countermanded the general's edict. More than "a duel between a buffoonish maverick general and an ever-patient and sagacious president," Fellman explains, Frémont's decree constituted "an important precedent." He "articulated the previously unthinkable, employing means that were, as Lincoln emphasized, extra-constitutional under ordinary circumstances." Ironically, more than a year later Lincoln followed Frémont's path.
In "Boxers, Briefs and Battles," Jean Huets examines how underwear for Civil War soldiers was always scarce and became coveted spoils of war. She insists that "the humble suit of underwear highlights the Civil War soldier himself: his endurance and fortitude, his ability to make do with whatever conditions and supplies came along and his sense of humor."
Though seemingly comical, the U.S. Army's Camel Corps, as Kenneth Weisbrode explains, dated back to the 1850s when two Southern secretaries of war, Jefferson Davis and John Floyd, championed camels as fuel-efficient pack animals along the western frontier. In February 1861, Texas Rebels captured Camp Verde, where most of the camels resided, but the Confederates never employed them, and Lincoln's government ultimately abandoned the experiment with dromedaries. "Would the camels have made a fine American cavalry?" Weisbrode asks. "Would they have become as ubiquitous a symbol of the Wild West as the horse and cowboy?"
Though Whitman worried that "the real war will never get into the books," Widmer's "The New York Times: Disunion" makes a good case for high-quality blogs as accurate, entertaining Civil War history.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte. His latest book is "A Just and Lasting Peace: A Documentary History of Reconstruction."
Raleigh’s News & Observer / The Charlotte Observer - John David Smith
Did you know that regiments from the North and South kept pets—including bears, eagles, badgers, even a camel—as mascots? Or that a significant percentage of Civil War soldiers were under the age of 18? In this eclectic collection of modern commentary on the Civil War (culled from
the New York Times' blog of the same name), scholars and historians explore the conflict from new angles. Their subjects include the roles of women in the war (at home and on the battlefields), as well as the experiences of African Americans, both slaves and freed man. There's an essay with excerpts from Walt Whitman's diary that convey his pride in the swelling Union ranks; another details Lincoln's failed plan to purchase all the slaves in Delaware with government bonds. The book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the in war in all its complexities.
Parade.com - Hannah Dreyfus
In 2010, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War the New York Times launched the Disunion blog to offer essayswith the “snap, crackle and pop of lively online writing”addressing the Civil War from a variety of angles. Widmer (assistant to the president for special projects, Brown Univ.), with two Times staff editors, has selected over 100 of the blog’s pieces, presenting them in chronological parallel with the war years covered. Here are essays by some notable academics (e.g., David W. Blight), but more are by independent scholars (for example, Amanda Foreman, Harold Holzer) and popular interpreters such as Ken Burns and Winston Groom. The topics range from traditional discussions of President Lincoln, the war’s generals, and major battles to essays on African Americans in the war and studies of other marginalized groups including women, immigrants, and Native Americans.
Verdict The result is a lively anthology that documents the state of today’s scholarship and popular opinion on the war. It is quite different from other new anthologies such as America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries, edited by Edward L. Ayers, which includes longer selections of older materials (including fiction) dating from 1852 to the present. This is recommended for most Civil War history collections.Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. Lib., PA
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Widmer, a Brown University historian, is joined by
New York Times op-ed staff editors Risen and Kalogerakis in the masterful compilation of more than 100 short essays based on the award-winning Times Disunion blog (begun in 2010), which chronologically traces and reconsiders the War between the States, an event he believes still remains "a ghostly presence in American life." The collection sequentially launches with the secession crisis and moves through the Emancipation Proclamation, and the offerings are wonderfully multifarious. History scholar Louis Masur's insightful essay factors Lincoln's presidential election into the fray as deftly as Susan Schulten ably explores the war from a geographical perspective. War historian Adam Goodheart's contributions are consistent standouts and include a rich sketch of Harriet Tubman and pensive words about slaves at Christmastime. William Freehling considers the secession's impact through Confederate Gen. George Wythe Randolph's eyes, journalist Cate Lineberry offers an outstanding profile of Confederate spy Rose Greenhow and a jarring piece on juvenile soldiers, and military historian C. Kay Larson provides an article on the oft-overlooked presence of female wartime volunteers. Uniform in tone and thought-provoking content, the articles are supplemented by actual diary entries, artifact images, letters, pertinent cartography, photographs and poetry. The mood of the era is captured best through Carole Emberton's harrowingly detailed commentary on the scourge of war-borne smallpox, Terry L. Jones' deliberation on black militiamen and Widmer's own examination of Lincoln's portraiture, carefully manipulated "to give the Union a face--his own." Each of the assembled scholars, historians, academics and journalists crafts unique insights and viewpoints and through their collective dialogue, artistically contemplates the heft and enduring relevance of the Civil War. American history meets the "snap, crackle and pop of lively online writing" in this outstanding serialization.