The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer is one of the more engaging books I’ve received lately. It’s neither a catalogue nor a popular history of the war but an interesting fusion of the two.
The book features items from the New-York Historical Society’s collections, arranged chronologically and illustrated in color. The images are great, but this isn’t a picture book with the text limited to captions. Instead, Holzer uses the objects as jumping-off points to explore various aspects of the Civil War era. A wheel used to select names for the draft is the springboard for an examination of conscription, an 1864 campaign flag prompts a discussion of Johnson’s selection as a candidate for the vice presidency, and so on. The chapters are short, but still substantial enough to give readers a nice little overview of the subject.
The objects run the gamut from a set of slave shackles to a portrait of U.S. Grant, from a John Brown pike to a manuscript copy of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln, emancipation, and the home front get particular attention, but the selection is broad enough to appeal to anybody who’s interested in the war.
This book gives you the same joy of exploration and discovery that you’d get from a museum exhibit. You can read straight through it for an overview of some important aspects of the war, or jump around to whatever artifacts strike your fancy. If you’re a museum junkie, it’ll be a welcome addition to your library.