Sometimes I’m a sucker for coffee table books. And sometimes they turn out to be more than coffee table books.
In 2006, National Geographic published Eyewitness to the Civil War: The Complete History of the Civil War from Secession to Reconstruction. Written by Stephen Hyslop and edited by Neil Kagan, the book appears to be a classic book meant for the coffee table. And it could certainly find a home there. But it turns out to be a lot more.
The book is like a documentary in print. It provides a basic (and well-written) account of the war from beginning to end, highlighting the major battles, developments, home fronts, and international repercussions. It tells the stories of generals and soldiers, slaveowners and slaves, and farmers and townspeople who lived the war. It shows how an increasingly split nation finally erupted into the violence of civil war.
You discover what soldiers ate, like hardtack (biggest problem with this army staple: bugs). You learn about what passed for medical science. You read letters and journal entries. You see what soldiers’ apparel looked like. You see how newspapers North and South reported the war. You see paintings of battles, and study wonderful maps drawn at the time. You see the experiences former slaves had as soldiers. You experience the war in its glory and its horror. And you learn about what civilians thought and did, and how the war affected them, and how the war seemed to inhale immigrants, and especially the Irish.
Colorful and well-researched sidebars to the book’s main narrative include eyewitness accounts, mapping the war, and picture essays. The book’s major strength is how it draws upon relics, diaries, journals, letters, memoirs, photographs, and sketches. It’s carefully curated history, to be sure, but it’s history in the raw.
Hyslop’s published works include Eyewitness to World War II, The Old West, Atlas of World War II, The Secret History of World War II, Bound for Santa Fe, and Almanac of World History. Several of these titled were published by National Geographic. He worked as a staff writer and text editor at Time-Life Books, and he’s written for numerous magazines, including American History, Kansas History, California History, World War II, and the History Channel Magazine.
I’m not sure when I bought the book; it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for some years. But when I finally got around to reading it, I discovered the pleasure of a solid, well-thought-out, and well-constructed text that tells a straightforward and vitally important story.