- Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War's Ragged Edges ed. by Stephen Berry
Weirding the War stands out. Not only because of its highly distinctive cover art, but also more importantly because of the high-quality content within. Edited by Stephen Berry, and containing an eclectic collection of original essays, this anthology makes a brave attempt to break away from the culture of reverence that shapes many studies of the American Civil War, even by top scholars. Weirding the War draws its inspiration from "Freakonomics," the multimedia phenomenon of journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt, who according to Stephen Berry employ "the use of economic theory to investigate atypical subjects in the hope of yielding fresh insights into typical social dynamics" (5).
Berry and his collaborators seek to bring the sensibility of Freakonomics to history, calling it "weirding." Practically speaking, this means the authors explore corners of the Civil War that at first might seem trivial. As Berry puts it, the book is "dedicated to cowards, bummers, drunks, prostitutes, scavengers, and profiteers" (2). In other words, this is a scholarly anthology that, while not disrespectful of more conventional Civil War historiography, [End Page 152] is devoted to obscure people, places, and things of the Civil War, teasing scholarly significance from them.
Berry organizes Weirding the War into six sections of related essays. Section 1 deals with materiality, with essays on souvenir collecting from battlefields during the Civil War; the postwar aesthetic appreciation of Civil War ruins; and corrupt North Carolina officials enriching themselves by abusing the law allowing government confiscation of the property of persons disloyal to the Confederacy. Section 2 addresses women, with fascinating essays on the various identities created by William Quantrill's wartime "wife"; how the war altered prewar patterns of courtship in the South; and insights into the shifting mores in the wartime romances of a Virginia belle. Section 3 takes as its theme suffering, with essays on the torture of the wife of a Unionist guerrilla leader in North Carolina; hunger in the Civil War South; and the social significance of southern coroners' reports in the Civil War era. Section 4 examines emancipation, with contributions that explore how a Kentucky cold snap helped advance freedom for the slaves; how desertions of black Union soldiers revealed a greater loyalty to family and community than to the army; and how ex-Confederates healed themselves after defeat and forged a resistance to Radical Reconstruction in elaborate postwar horsemanship tournaments. Section 5 analyzes the minds of soldiers, with essays covering what a Confederate officer's court-martial revealed about the meaning of honor in the southern army; the minds of white Union soldiers as demonstrated by some of their common catchphrases; and a fictional reenvisioning of the wartime activities of a famous nineteenth-century artist. The sixth and last section deals with the postwar period, featuring essays on how wartime disabilities altered gender relations in white southern families; the tremendous psychological damage war and defeat wrought on Confederate veterans; and how a Union survivor of Andersonville publicly refashioned his own Civil War memory through written histories that alienated his former comrades.
Not surprisingly, although all the essays in this anthology make worthwhile reading, they adapt the volume's weirding approach with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. Probably, the single most unconventional essay in Weirding the War is Daniel E. Sutherland's fictional reen-visioning of the Civil War experience of painter James Whistler. Before the war, Whistler was thrown out of West Point for poor performance. Sutherland imagines Whistler's Civil War career as a Confederate officer, playing off of Whistler's well-known gest that if he had passed a third-year chemistry exam at West Point, he would have become a general instead of an expatriate artist. Although seemingly an entertaining bit of fluff, Sutherland's essay is a useful reminder of the importance of chance in [End Page 153] how the Civil War developed. Consequently...