Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas and the Civil War - Book Review #3 - McIvor's "God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers"

James McIvor's God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers: A True Civil War Christmas Story (Plume, 2006) is one of the most rewarding and one of the most confounding books I've read in some time.

The cons: it's hard to say what the author was going for as it seems to be three books-in-one...the subtitle ("A True...Story") seemingly refers to an episode on the eve of Battle of Stone's River (a full week after Christmas) in which soldiers from both sides sang "Home Sweet Home," yet he spends less than three pages on the episode and offers but a single firsthand account; the book does include a bibliography but no endnotes nor an index, which makes it hard to adequately trace some of the truly good primary source material in the book (see below); look, I love Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative, but I get gas when I see it used a source; finally, the author tends to exaggerate and hold to well-worn myths on certain points of tactics, technology, etc.

Now, for the pros, and there are a lot of them:

It's a short book, very affordable, and available in a variety of formats, and the actual book size makes it a great "stocking stuffer."

The first chapter (especially) of the book describes the increasing importance of Christmas celebrations in AMerica in the mid-19th-century and does an even better job of pointing to differences between a still-"Merry" Christmas of 1861 to a significantly changed atmosphere in late 1862, especially in the South

The book does include a great number of meaningful and relevant excerpts of soldier correspondence during Christmastime, many fittingly drawn from the Stone's River Battlefield archives and other archival/unpublished sources.

The book actually serves as an estimable summary of the Battle of Stone's River.

The human interest stories within are terrific, including a few tragic coincidences and premonitions, and I find myself wanting to learn more about a few people in the book, especially Col. Julius P. Garresche (if anyone has advice on where I should start, please let me know).

The inclusion and interpretation of wartime Christmas poetry was a real value; some of it was obscure, but even the well-known poems like Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells" are provided in their entirety and it's often the less-quoted lines that are the most poetic.

The writing and storytelling is done with grace and sensitivity befitting the holiday, the tragic nature of war, and the hope of the first peacetime Christmas in 1865.

The book is admittedly something of a "mash-up," but everyone should find that it is more than the sum of its parts. Recommended.

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