Saturday, March 17, 2012

Just Finished Reading

To me social history makes some of the best reading. Getting at the the nitty-gritty of what life was like for people in the mid-nineteenth century - their thoughts, ambitions, struggles - makes that time period come even more alive for me. The title of this book is what peaked my curiosity to read it. It sounded like quite an ambitious topic to take on in 330 or so pages. But, having read some of Scott Nelson's previous works and having met Carol Sheriff (both William and Mary professors) when I worked at Pamplin Historical Park, I figured that they could probably pull it off. And I believe they have.

This book's title sounded very similar to another title that I have sitting on the shelf, A People's History of the Civil War, by David Williams. I have not read Williams' book as yet, but it's in line. It will be interested to compare the two.

The last paragraph on the inside dust jacket pretty well sums up A People at War: "An engrossing account of ordinary people caught up in life-shattering circumstances, A People's War captures how the Civil War rocked the lives of rich and poor, black and white, parents and children - and how all of these Americans pushed generals and presidents to make the conflict a people's war."

One of the things I appreciated most about the book is that it did not just start right in on the Civil War. It provides a nice contextual introduction in the first section, "From Compromise to Chaos, 1854-1861." That section includes two chapters, "The Road to Bleeding Kansas," and "From Wigwam to War." Three sections of 10 chapters make up the majority of the book and cover the war year experiences of citizens and slaves. Like the helpful first section, the author's provide a necessary final section that covers the Reconstruction years; "Rebuilding the Nation, 1865-1877." In this last section I found the author's coverage of Northerner Albion Tourgee's experience in Reconstruction North Carolina especially insightful.

This book is littered with accounts of deserters (from both sides), women ammunition factory workers, soldiers who bought substitutes, slaves who fled to Union lines, hospital workers, laundry women, foreign sailors, Southern refugees, plantation owners and scores of other people that had a part, albeit sometimes minor, in our nation's greatest struggle. Many of these people and their stories have long been neglected in favor studies of the famous generals, politicians and even the common soldier; this book provides those previously left out with historical voice.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give A People at War at 4.5

By the way....what an incredible cover photo!

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