Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 Book Fair-O-Rama

Just a quick pos....Okay, this isn't going to be a "quick" post, but I do want to hi-light some books that I have read this past year...I've posted longer reviews of some of them already - especially as part of my "Medical Department' column posts; others will be mentioned here the first time.

First, for books I've already reviewed:

Bernadette Atkins's Widow's Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America...a very informative booklet written by Bernadette L. Atkins - a writer, lecturer, photographer, and expert in Victorian era mourning practices and artifacts.

Widow’s Weeds is slim at less than forty pages, but is packed with information on period customs for wakes and funerals, cemeteries, undertakers, caskets, post-mortem photography, spiritualism and philosophies of the afterlife, mourning art, clothing, jewelry, and etiquette, and funeral food (including a period recipe for “funeral pie”). The booklet includes a nice bibliography to prompt further reading as well as more than eighty illustrations, including photographs of many period mourning artifacts from Bernadette’s collection.

The book ($7.95 plus P/H) is sold at a number of Civil War battlefield bookstores, historic cemeteries, and funeral custom museums. The easiest way to order Widow’s Weeds is through Bernadette’s distributor, Fred Struthers, at R.L. Shep Publishing Company

You can read my entire review and interview with Ms. Atkins here.

Dr. Margaret Humphreys' Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (John Hopkins University Press, 2008)

In her recent book, Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (John Hopkins University Press, 2008), Dr. Margaret Humphreys details the reasons why the black soldier was more likely to die from disease than his white comrades-in-arms. Relying on period medical files, Sanitary Commission reports, and correspondence of black soldiers, she describes the prejudices, faulty equipage, hard labor, and inattentive care that resulted in a longer war, and more important – in her words – “a wastage of human potential.”

In the main, Dr. Humphreys expertly describes and explains how the substandard clothing, housing, diet, and care resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of black soldiers. She gives particular attention to St. Louis (where a particularly harsh winter in 1863-64 resulted in hundreds of deaths from pneumonia, measles, smallpox, and meningitis), Louisiana, and especially Texas, where the lack of fresh water and insufficient rations led to a scurvy epidemic, made worse by the inexcusable incompetence and cruelty of senior officers.

You can read my entire review and interview with Dr. Humphreys here.

Dr. Cheryl Wells's A Surgeon in the Army of the Potomac (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), an edited collection of the writings of Surgeon Francis Wafer of the 108th NY Infantry.

Wafer chronicled his journey from Canada to New York to take his qualifying examinations, his assignment with the 108th New York in the Army of the Potomac, and battles from Chancellorsville to Gettysburg to the Overland Campaign of 1864. As quoted above, Wafer began his memoir with a sense of trepidation at “an eventful future,” knowing what the Army of the Potomac had already been through; little did Wafer know what would be required in terms of his own suffering. Although his letters and memoir end before the surrender at Appomattox, Dr. Wells has most ably added the rest of Wafer’s somber story: failing health brought on by the toll of the war, his untimely death, and his family’s unsuccessful journey through the pension bureaucracy.

You can read my entire review and interview with Dr. Wells here.

Now - onto some other books I've had the pleasure of reading this past year...for better or worse, I often find that when I am in the middle of a research or writing project, my reading is limited to smaller bites from many books rather than the full meal of reading an entire book. I also find, though, that I am always more satisfied - and sometimes inspired - after reading a book completely, and i had the great pleasure of reading a few this year in addition to the ones discussed above, including:

Michael W. Kauffman's American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. A great read, and - in my opinion - much, much better than the seemingly more-heralded Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson. For an added bonus, make sure you watch the 2007 History Channel special inspired by Kauffman's book: The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth, available on DVD.

Eric Wittenberg, JD Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent's One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863.

Gettysburg is certainly a popular topic for people interested in the Civil War and for those looking for new books. The authors of One Continuous Fight do more than take advantage of this popularity: they build on it and they add to our knowledge of it, both very admirable qualities in any book on history.

The beginning of this book was very good...the end was just terrific and included an assessment of performances and faults in not bagging Lee's army from the perspectives of Union soldiers and officers, Confederate soldiers and officers, newspapermen, politicians, etc. ***The last chapter is worth the price of the book*** - that is not an exaggeration. The authors' conclusion is...just kidding...I won't spoil it by telling you their (the authors') conclusions, but they are well-reasoned, thoughtful, and interesting. Read the book!

For me, the middle of the book had to be slogged through. They describe more than twenty separate engagements they could identify in that week-plus time from July 4 to when Lee crosses back over the river...some in a few paragraphs, some in full chapters...most of them were cavalry engagements. I appreciate the work it must have taken to gather material and write on these various engagements...unfortunately for me (but probably not most folks), I'm just not interested in tactical descriptions of Civil War engagements. If you are a Gettysburg or Civil War cavalry aficionado, or particularly interested in particular personalities or regiments, the bulk of the book will be very good reading for you.

I know the authors take great pride in drawing on significant amounts of primary material and a look at the bibliography shows this to be true...a good amount of the sources are manuscript material drawn from many different archives, and they weave a lot of first-person accounts into the narrative, which I always enjoy. I certainly admire the success of Mssrs. Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent...they are justly well-respected cavalry historians with more than a dozen books to their credit among them. That expertise shines through here.

I would recommend this to someone who is pretty well-read/familiar w/ the Battle of Gettysburg but wants an in-depth look at the hard fighting over the next two weeks and explanations for how/why Lee "got away." They do need to be prepared for detailed descriptions of more than twenty different engagements, which can be dizzying.

I'm also so pleased that Eric Wittenberg is now my 'brother' in the Edinborough Press "family." Make sure to keep an eye out for his forthcoming biography of Ulric Dahlgren, Like a Meteor Burning Brightly, due from Edinborough in early- to mid-2009.

Also due from Edinborough late in 2009 is my second book, Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine, a co-edited (along with good friend and expert Civil War medical expert Guy Hasegawa, Pharm. D.) collection of invited essays. Stay tuned to this blog for updates as publication gets closer.

There are others that I have just finished or that I am still reading, and I'll post reviews of those in the coming year. The new year should also bring some other good reading as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in morning customs, the topic of Ms. Atkins book, and I shall order it online. I was unaware that it existed.
Thanks for pointing it out.
Happy Holidays