The Civil War has been a subject of deep fascination for Americans almost from the moment it ended.
The era, the war, Abraham Lincoln, military leadership, individual battles and all manner of other topics have been the focus of academic and popular scholarship for more than a century.
Despite the abundance of work that has been done, 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year, edited by Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard, manages to bring something new and valuable to the table.
The book is a collection of 10 essays that explore in a variety of ways how 1863 was pivotal for Lincoln, the Civil War and the nation.
In one respect these essays read like a collection of the greatest hits of 1863, dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address; the New York City draft riots; Union military victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga; and the emergence of key Union Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. These military developments were especially significant in determining the outcome of the war; as John F. Marszalek and Michael B. Ballard argue in their essay And the War Goes On, the Confederate defeat in April 1865 could be traced to the events of 1863.
Where this collection truly stands out, though, is in its consideration of events that took place away from the political and military battlefields that dominate most accounts of the Civil War. For example, Catherine Clinton’s essay, The Fiery Furnace of Affliction, fleshes out aspects of Lincoln’s personal life that are all too easily forgotten given the magnitude of his public accomplishments.
Illness, injury and a wife struggling to overcome her grief at the loss of a son (to say nothing of Lincoln’s own grief) were all part of Lincoln’s family life at the same time he was prosecuting a war.
Essays on Civil War photography by Bob Zeller and Harold Holzer also confront an aspect of American culture that virtually disappears in most accounts of the war.
To modern observers, Civil War photographs, especially those of dead soldiers taken in the aftermath of battle, can have a surreal quality to them, but to contemporary viewers they were a form of breaking news that would draw large crowds to galleries where they were put on display.
Lincoln himself twice visited a Washington, D.C., photography studio to sit for a series of portraits that were reproduced and sold throughout the United States. Stories like these do not fundamentally alter our understanding of the Civil War, but they help to paint a more complete picture.
On the human level, these essays reinforce that emancipation was a seemingly impossible battle when Lincoln issued his Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.
The responses to emancipation serve as an unfortunate reminder of how racist so much of the United States was at this point in its history. Against long odds and staunch resistance, Lincoln never wavered.
Orville Vernon Burton’s essay on the Gettysburg Address highlights Lincoln’s devotion to the Declaration of Independence, and notes that while Lincoln began 1863 with a legalistic call for freedom, at Gettysburg he sought to redefine for Americans what freedom meant while also making clear what was truly at stake in the Civil War.
A couple of the essays feel a bit scattershot in their approach or out of place (most notably a chapter on Lincoln at Sea), but in total this is a worthwhile read that succeeds in making Lincoln and the Civil War feel real in a way that few books do.