Monday, August 12, 2019

Just Finished Reading - War Matters

Although I have no solid evidence to support it, I would guess that the majority of the serious Civil War enthusiasts out there own a relic of some kind from the war. Some folks even form their whole interest in the war around collecting. The Civil War produced so much "stuff" that almost any artifact has developed a group collecting interest in the years since it ended. Some folks collect letters, some collect photographs (or types of photographs), some collect patriotic envelopes, artillery projectiles, medical equipment, or uniforms; not to mention extremely popular items like weapons such as firearms or swords.

The point is, material culture matters to history fans. Hundreds of museums are vivid proof. Most of us humans have an innate need to collect things that help us remember a past time or make a connection to a gone-by era. Although I have a few old pieces of paper, lead, and iron, my favorite relic is a minie ball. My father bought it for me many, many, many, years ago at a roadside antique shop along the rural route to what was then the Perryville Battlefield State Shrine. I've held on to it for going on 40 years, not only because it is, for me, a way to connect with the past, but also because it is symbolic of the common interest in the Civil War that my dad and I shared.

Material culture mattered to those who directly experienced the Civil War, too. In War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era, editor Joan E. Cashin gives us ten chapters by many of the field's top scholars that highlight the power and place of things. Civil War-era material culture studies is a relatively new avenue of study, but as these essays clearly demonstrate, artifacts can provide significant insight into the more traditional historical categories like the war's political, social, economic, and cultural aspects.

A number of the primary topics of the essays cover items one would expect. For example, Earl J. Hess examines Civil War weapons. Soldiers expressed a wide array of emotions about their weapons. Some gave their guns names, others cherished the sense of protection their firearms provided, while others wanted nothing to do with their weapons once the shooting stopped. Jason Phillips looks at a specific weapon: John Brown pikes. Phillips shares an excellent history on the pikes that the militant abolitionist expected to hand out to slaves at his Harpers Ferry raid. But more than that he shows how others, like Edmund Ruffin, used the pikes to promote their own opposing agendas. Ronald and Mary Zboray explore the significance of books as soldier projectile shields. Often these paper protectors came in the form of Bibles, which both soldiers and those on the home front applied significant symbolism. Souvenirs from the Appomattox surrender provided some Confederates with a firm reminder of their time under arms as Peter Carmichael's article contends. Other essays incorporate non-traditional forms of material culture. Lisa Brady and Timothy Silver view "Nature as Material Culture" with Antietam as the focus. And Robert Hicks uses spurious small pox vaccinations as his topic of study. Jefferson Davis's papers and possessions captured with him in May 1865 formed an important episode in his life as he attempted to get them back after his incarceration as Yael Sternhell informs us.

All of the ten informative essays are well-researched and written. Public historians will particularly appreciate the obvious material culture angle, but this book is an important read for any student of the Civil War, no matter where one falls on the novice to professional spectrum. I highly recommend it!

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