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‘The Civil War in 50 Objects’: emblems of a bloody conflict
“The Civil War in 50 Objects,” compiled by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, is a striking visual collection of artifacts from the Civil War, from a set of tiny slave shackles for a child to a Confederate cipher key for decoding secret messages.
Special to The Seattle Times
“The Civil War in 50 Objects”
by Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society
Viking, 416 pp., $36
This unusual book, compiled by eminent Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, offers a view of the Civil War through 50 objects chosen from the extensive Civil War collections of the New-York Historical Society.
The society “commenced its determination to acquire this material while the war still raged,” Holzer writes. “It has since amassed, through donation and purchase alike, a remarkable variety of documents, artifacts, relics and images from the period.” Since 2004 the society’s holdings also have included the Gilder Lehrman Collection of thousands of letters, maps, copies of orders, photographs, diaries and other Civil War documents.
Holzer confesses that it was nearly impossible to choose the “top 50” items from these great collections, but says the items that finally made the cut “not only tell the story of the war itself but also convey the encyclopedic nature of the institution’s holdings. Readers should know that there is much more where all this came from.”
Holzer provides four to 10 pages of commentary and explanation for each object. Some of the items are strikingly poignant, especially the first one in the book — a pair of tiny shackles, which Holzer calls a “gruesome relic of slavery designed to restrain a mere child.”
Others include a spearlike pike, one of many John Brown planned to use to arm slaves he hoped would rise in rebellion after his raid on Harpers Ferry; a colorful Zouave uniform patterned after those worn by French African troops that belonged to a member of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry, and a black-and-white portrait of Lincoln and his family, done partly from photographs — a sort of Civil War version of PhotoShopping.
Among the most unusual objects is a Confederate cipher key, used to decode secret messages. Others include an 83-page illustrated diary kept by a 19-year-old Union soldier killed at Antietam, a rare limited-edition copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a Confederate newspaper published on wallpaper because of a severe paper shortage during the siege of Vicksburg, a wooden lottery wheel used to select the names of Union draftees, and a Bible rescued by a child who fled the Colored Orphan Asylum when it was set afire during the 1863 New York draft riots.
There’s also Lincoln’s handwritten projection of the electoral vote in the 1864 presidential election, published here for the first time, and a copy of Grant’s terms for the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, handwritten by Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian who served on Grant’s staff.
Other objects include photographs, letters, diaries, paintings, lithographs, sculptures, medals, flags and a hand-lettered prison newspaper. They are arranged “more or less” in chronological order and Holzer’s explanatory text is accompanied by 85 full-color illustrations.
Packaged in an unusually high-quality edition, this book is the next best thing to viewing the artifacts in person or, given Holzer’s thorough explanation of the history of each object, it might be even better.
Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond’s latest book is “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press).