The ABP Journal
Fall 2007, Vol. 3 No. 1
ISSN 1939-4578

eyewitness to the civil war
[journal table of contents]






The authors have brought to the project considerable archival research and an array of images that will impress even longtime students of the war. 


















“I have never seen a mass of such filthy, strong-smelling men,” a Maryland civilian complained about a crowd of soldiers: “[T]he scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance.”

















National Geographic has the reputation to attract many thousands of readers.  It is therefore reassuring that the publisher has produced a quality text that can be recommended to the public both for serious reading and for momentary browsing.
















Eyewitness to the Civil War: The Complete History from Secession to Reconstruction, edited by Neil Kagan; narrative by Stephen G. Hyslop (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006).

Published in the fall of 2006, Eyewitness to the Civil War is National Geographic’s latest and best book devoted to the conflict of 1861-1865.  At 416 pages, the book dwarfs some of the publisher’s earlier studies of the war, and some readers may find its sheer size and weight daunting.  But the length is a feature to applaud, as it provides Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop with ample room to investigate the conflict, its causes, and its immediate aftermath.

Surely one of the most intriguing qualities of the volume is the fact that it is not easy to categorize.  I am tempted to describe it as a coffee table book, due to its oversized format and its abundance of photographs, drawings, and other images.  In truth, the work is far more sophisticated than what we typically find in a glossy, illustrated book.  In a reversal of recent trends in publishing, the promotional language does not do the volume justice. Promised a “fast-paced” book that “captures the drama, pathos of [the] Civil War,” savvy readers might expect little more than an attractive picture book featuring romantic captions.  But Kagan and Hyslop have not merely cobbled together the standard photos of the war and its personalities, nor have they created a facile and romantic narrative.  Rather, they have brought to the project considerable archival research and an array of images that will impress even longtime students of the war.

The book’s 440 images are its most striking quality, and will be of interest to scholars and casual readers alike.  These images include portraits, sketches, and photographs never before published.  Also present are rare images that do not often appear in one-volume works on the struggle.  For instance, in the pages of Eyewitness to the Civil War I found several captivating photographs — new to me — of military units and individual soldiers.  These include a portrait of men from the 8th Kansas infantry, their eyes wary above bayonets tilted toward the camera.  I was also taken with the photograph of nine soldiers from the 57th Massachusetts who made it through the Battle of the Wilderness unwounded.  Their seventy-three comrades in Company I were not so lucky. (Searching the faces of these survivors, I could not help but try to interpret their expressions. Relief? Pride? Regret?)  An image of Ulysses S. Grant’s open liquor cabinet is suggestive, although the caption notes correctly that the general’s “drinking binges were infrequent and did not affect his performance as a commander.”  I also came upon poignant and unfamiliar images of casualties: amputees photographed by Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou; a pile of amputated feet; hurt Yankees bedridden in Nashville; soldiers dead on the field outside of Corinth, Mississippi.  Similarly wounded, the gun turret of the Monitor appears in these pages, its steel plating dented visibly by the solid shot of its famous nemesis, the Virginia.

Pictures of civilians also appear with regularity in the book, including women, politicians, journalists, slaves, free African-Americans, and children.  The authors have chosen to blow up the famous photograph of one shirtless former slave, the ghastly mass of scars on his back testifying to the cruelty of the slaveholder’s lash.  Helpfully, Kagan and Hyslop fill in the context of this and other iconic images of the war.  The photograph of Rose O’Neal Greenhow and her daughter, presented in many texts as the portrait of an anonymous southern mother and child, here receives proper narrative treatment.  So too does the photograph of nurse Clara Barton, whose half-smile belies the horrors she experienced firsthand.  Readers of the book will also discover modern images of uniforms, weapons, flags, and letters as preserved in museums and collections across the nation.  Beyond adding color and texture to the work, these detailed pictures of artifacts — especially in the book’s seven photo essays — will make the reader feel that she is peering through the glass of a museum display case.

On the “About this Book” page of Eyewitness to the Civil War, the authors explain that the quality of their images result from recent advances in digital scanning technology.  High-resolution scans have made possible the reproduction of those Library of Congress images lacking corresponding prints. Moreover, familiar prints can now be scanned using more powerful equipment than ever before.  The authors assert that the “superb quality” of the images permit for “many surprising details [to be] revealed for the first time, allowing readers to examine anew everything from facial expressions to buttons on uniforms to building signs.”  While I did not myself discover many new details in familiar photographs, I will agree that virtually every image appears crisp and fresh in this book.  For that reason, my eye lingered over even the most standard photograph with renewed interest.

No single-volume, illustrated work on the Civil War can offer an especially nuanced or innovative narrative, but Hyslop does a solid job of accounting for the war without relying on myths or romantic devices. He does not pretend that Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville was a complete surprise, nor does he let readers believe that Henry Heth’s troops approached Gettysburg only in search of shoes. He does take at face value the letter that George E. Pickett supposedly wrote moments before launching the infamous July 3 assault at Gettysburg (the lines were likely fabricated after the war by Pickett’s wife), but such moments do not detract from a mostly even-handed and reliable narrative. Hyslop portrays the institution of slavery, and the political and cultural struggles it inspired, in realistic terms. For example, he explodes the portrait of the content and happy slave so prevalent in antebellum and postwar literature: “In a region renowned for its storytellers, Southerners began to cultivate a mythology before the Civil War that slavery, far from being immoral, was a benevolent institution that elevated the former African above his natural state.” Some readers will wish that Hyslop had spent more time on the causes of the war, and on the home front, than on its military dimensions. But the book devotes ample space to civilian affairs North and South, as well as to cultural and even scientific aspects of nineteenth-century America. Sections such as “Emancipation and Endurance,” “War on the Home Front,” and “The Medical Middle Ages” provide context for chapters on military events.

If the title of the book refers in part to the photographers, artists, and journalists who captured the war firsthand, it also refers to the thousands of letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, annotated maps, and histories penned by Americans who endured the war years.  “National Geographic offers you an opportunity to experience the emotional history of this tragic era through the eyes and words of those who were there,” Kagan explains.  The book itself delivers on this promise, providing hundreds of quotations drawn from the writing of the war’s participants.  In addition, the text includes thirty “eyewitness accounts” sectioned off from the main narrative.  These accounts are excerpted from the writings of such persons as Clara Barton, Mary Chesnut, John B. Gordon, Alice Shirley, and Walt Whitman.  The excerpts add personality and depth to the story of the war, and make it difficult for any reader to forget the human face of this enormous conflict.

Moreover, such extended accounts upset the traditional top-down approach to history, in which only kings, politicians, and generals are granted space to speak.  “I have never seen a mass of such filthy, strong-smelling men,” a Maryland civilian is quoted as complaining about a crowd of soldiers: “[T]he scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance.”  Other quotations reflect the impersonal and tragic nature of war.  For example, the authors quote a letter by Roland Bowen of the 15th Massachusetts, who wrote sadly about a fallen friend: “Henry is the 3rd corpse from the upper end on the top tier next to the woods. . . . Mr. Ainsworth, this is not the way we bury folks at home.  I am sorry, but I was too late to have it different.”  The featured words of common soldiers and civilians will appeal especially to general readers, whose interests may not lie exclusively with military strategy and battles.  But even military history buffs will find such quotations arresting, as they call attention to the larger world chewed up by the gears of modern warfare. 

I believe the inclusion and celebration of eyewitness testimony is a great strength of the book.  In many respects, these accounts give the volume its very substance.  Some of the quotations, however, were penned long after the war itself — and therefore contain a certain measure of hindsight, special pleading, and romanticizing (the reflections of soldier-turned-politician John B. Gordon, for instance).  The authors do little, in such cases, to warn the reader that the speaker’s voice may not truly capture his or her thinking and impressions “on the spot.”  But the book is intended for a general audience — as evidenced by the glossary of Civil War terms at back — and not for an exclusively academic readership.  So long as students receive the supplied accounts with the understanding that some are postwar creations, and not statements of fact, few will be misled by the contents.

All told, this book is a handsome and valuable introduction to the history of the Civil War.  Its illustrations and firsthand accounts bring the conflict to life in the manner of a museum exhibit, where one can pick and choose which display interests her at the moment.  Moreover, the narrative is engaging, crisp, and clearly-written.  National Geographic has the reputation to attract many thousands of readers to any publication it prints.  It is therefore reassuring that the publisher has produced a quality text that can be recommended to the public both for serious reading and for momentary browsing.  The $40 cost strikes me as appropriate for a book of this size and scope, especially as it includes so many colored images – including the maps of Union cartographer Robert Knox Sneden – that might otherwise be unavailable in a single volume. Eyewitness to the Civil War will be a fine, and useful, contribution to any personal or library bookshelf.

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College
Editor, The Ambrose Bierce Project
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Copyright © 2007 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.