Monday, December 2, 2013

"Disunion" - Edited by Ted Widmer (2013)

Even for a Civil War buff like me, this book holds unknown treasures. From the files of the New York Times blog of the same name; which chronicles the Civil War; Mr. Widmer has drawn upon the 106 most poignant articles; each of which illustrates a point about the conduct of the War Between the States, as well as the men who waged it.

The subjects represented here form an eclectic view of our nation’s most trying conflict. From Lincoln’s furtive trip through Baltimore to Washington for his first Inauguration; and on through the first years of the War Between the States, the editors have given us a comprehensive view of not only our own internal struggle, but also a look at what was happening in the rest of the world at the time, and how it affected us all. We were not alone in our struggles.

In Russia the serfs had just been freed, even as we were first going to war over the same issue. The differences in geography and how that affected the Russian serf are explored in a thorough manner, with the author taking only a few pages to make his point.

In Europe the Germans were struggling over the question of whether or not to be Germany or the Austrian Empire. Otto Von Bismarck was in charge and opted for a smaller Germany. The question of what would win out in the end would not be fully decided for 3 more wars and almost 100 years.

Mexico was mired with debt to the European powers; a debt which they decided not to pay. This decision brought the fury of the French down upon them. Maximilian was the designated President but he only lasted until 1869.

A letter to President Lincoln from the ruler of San Marino; a small country nestled in the northeastern corner of Italy which is the world’s oldest Republic, having been founded about 1300; is an interesting event all in itself. It took Lincoln 2 months to prepare the reply which he deemed proper enough to send.

The role which the railroads played in the Union victory is also explored, making the reader fully aware of the new power to get supplies to the front in an expeditious manner. What used to take months now took mere weeks, and sometimes just days, to accomplish. This “progress” made the killing faster and more numerous. And, for those who love the story, the Great Locomotive Chase is not ignored in this all encompassing book.

Here at home the authors tackle such subjects as the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in combat. Children were also involved in the conflict, one of the most famous being Johnny Clem, who at the age of 9 years, held the dubious distinction of being the youngest person in the war to have killed a man. Clem was a Union drummer boy, a veteran of quite a few campaigns before he shot the Confederate officer who demanded his drum in surrender.

Abraham Lincoln is at the center of almost every article presented here, giving us more insight as to who he really was as a person versus the legend we have come to know. His relationship with a man named Mr. Johnson, who did some work for the President in Illinois and then accompanied him to Washington, is a wonderful example of Lincoln’s attitudes concerning race.

Mr. Johnson was an African-American man. He cut Lincoln’s hair, and even nursed him to health in late 1863 when the President was stricken with a mild case of smallpox while travelling to Gettysburg for his famous speech. As a result of ministering to the President’s needs, Mr. Johnson himself came down with the pox and passed away as a result. Lincoln had him buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The President felt that, while it could not be proven that Mr. Johnson died as a result of exposure to his illness, it was a strong possibility. He took this burden literally, which is why he paid for Mr. Johnson’s funeral.

Rose Greenhow, a woman who lived around the corner from the White House, was a spy for the Confederacy. She was successful in passing the plans for the Battle of Bull Run to the enemy. Her late husband’s military contacts and her own social circle, allowed her to hear bits and pieces of information which she passed through the lines via messenger.

When she was discovered, Allan Pinkerton, who was in service to the US Government at the time, had her placed under house arrest. She then used her window shades to pass messages to other agents strolling by. At that point Pinkerton had the windows boarded up and Mrs. Greenhow removed to a military prison. She was so much trouble there; where she was the only woman; that she was exiled down South for the remainder of the war.

One of my favorite articles in this book was written by Mr. Widmer and concerns Sarah Bush, Lincoln's stepmother. He saw her for the last time in 1861 on his way to Washington. He gave her a black dress on the occasion, not knowing that she would wind up wearing that dress for his funeral. This is the woman who introduced him to books, and in doing so changed the course of history. This is also one of the finest pieces of writing to grace the pages of an already wonderful book.

The authors also explore the many famous names we have come to associate with the Civil War and give us a little more information about them. For instance, we meet Grant not as a General, but as a failed soldier working in a dry goods store. His star was yet to rise.

Filled with descriptions of everything imaginable about the War Between the States, this book will complement any literary collection about the Civil War. With so many subjects presented in its pages, the book will have the effect of making the reader look even further than ever before in an effort to understand the war which nearly drove a stake in the heart of our young nation, and in so many ways still divides us today.

No comments:

Post a Comment