Harold Holzer uses 50 objects to explore the Civil War

THE CIVIL WAR IN 50 OBJECTS. Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society. Viking. 380 pages. $36.
THE CIVIL WAR IN 50 OBJECTS. Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society. Viking. 380 pages. $36.

In his new book, The Civil War in 50 Objects, Harold Holzer uses pictures of a fascinating menagerie of Civil War-related items to distill what historian Eric Foner calls in his introduction a conflict that “permanently affected the future course of the development of the United States.”

Holzer handles the task with ease, showcasing the era through such artifacts as a pair of slave’s shackles sized for the wrists of a child and a copy, signed by Abraham Lincoln, of the manuscript for the 13th Amendment. Mostly in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, the items also include a Union soldier’s Zouave uniform, a Confederate army cipher key for coded messages and a rudimentary pike that abolitionist John Brown helped design for his army of freed slaves. Holzer describes how a dashing, mustachioed U.S. Army colonel was called to Harper’s Ferry after Brown seized the strategic armory. The colonel, Robert E. Lee, sent his lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, to parley with Brown.

“No,” Brown said, refusing to surrender. “I prefer to die here.” The confrontation ended with Brown in chains, later to be hanged in what is now Charles Town, W.Va.

Another object Holzer describes is the snare drum carried into battle by Union drummer boy Philip Corell. His drum was painted red, Holzer says, because he served with an artillery unit; blue drums were reserved for infantry drummers. Drumming proved so crucial to battlefield communication (one rhythm could mean to attack; another, to retreat) that, according to one report, the Union army placed orders for more than 32,000 drums during the war.

Fittingly, the last item in the book is that copy of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Holzer notes that, although the bill passed in February 1865, a number of former Confederate states refused to ratify the amendment until decades later. Kentucky, for example, did not approve it until 1976. Holzer writes that Mississippi was the last state to ratify the amendment, which is true. He is incorrect, though, in stating that this occurred in 1995. The state did not officially approve the amendment until February; because of a clerical error, the Mississippi government neglected to give proper notification back in 1995. Which means that, in a sense, slavery was not completely ended in this country until Feb. 7, 2013, when the Office of the Federal Register accepted Mississippi’s ratification.

T. Rees Shapiro reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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