The Civil War: A Treasury of Art and Literature by Stephen W. Sears

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The Civil War

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In March, 1865, hardly a month from the end of the Civil War and his own death, Abraham Lincoln ended his brief review of the war’s causes in his second inaugural address with the simple, hammerstroke words, “And the war came.”

The American Civil War came, and in many ways it has never ended. It engages our greatest historians, most talented novelists, and skilled filmmakers. Today, our Civil War enjoys ourultimate approval: It can be the basis of popular television miniseries.

To help explain this passionate intensity, noted Civil War historian Stephen Sears has edited a remarkable and moving book,THE CIVIL WAR: A TREASURY OF ART AND LITERATURE. Throughout this oversized volume, in powerful words and eloquent pictures, are the stories of the men who fought and the women who endured this wrenching transformation that created the American nation. This book is a record of their intricate tapestry, woven of blue and grey, black and white.

The famous are here: Frederick Douglas expressing the eloquent voice of an enslaved but unbowed people; Mary Chestnut recording the onset of war and the slow grind of defeat; William Faulkner, explaining how for every Southern boy, “it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.”

They are joined, even surpassed, by the everyday voices: aConfederate enlisted man recounting how his squad traded supplies with Yankees across the river; a newspaper editor reporting a Rebel cavalry raid on his small Pennsylvania town; a Georgia woman describing Sherman’s “bummers” during the March to the Sea.

What the words begin, the illustrations complete. Drawings, sketches, paintings and photographs convey the full heroism and horror of the war, and they range from the recognized mastery of a Winslow Homer or Edouard Manet to the awkward yet powerful works of “artist unknown.”

And there are the photographs, the stark, black and white images from men such as Matthew Brady. When we look upon them we recognize the truth in what the NEW YORK TIMES wrote in 1862: “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”