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Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges ed. by Stephen Berry (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 99-102 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0022

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This new collection of unusual tales from the Civil War era originated in Athens, Georgia, with three seasoned Civil War scholars either sitting down to a plate of meatloaf or listening to Bat Out of Hell—I’m not sure which. They got to talking about how their colleagues tend to circle around the same questions (What were the war’s main turning points? What motivated common soldiers? Should Lincoln get credit for freeing the slaves?) and decided that it was time to move away from these tired old debates and explore the byroads of Civil War history, following paths taken by those who weren’t acting as if future generations might be watching: like the war profiteers and coquettes, do-nothings and black deserters, or neglected children and broken men. If we follow the stories of these marginal characters, they reasoned, we might avoid the clichéd version of the war as the dark night of the nation’s soul, when all victims ultimately suffered for a noble end. We might then be able to reimagine subjects living lives full of paradox, happenstance, and chaos, rather than trying to shoehorn them into histories purporting to uncover the one “real war.” So they held a conference at the T. R. R. Cobb house in Athens, once home to the southern fire-eater Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb and now haunted by his ghost, according to more than one online report. What better place to discuss the crooked byways of Civil War history? Thus began “UnCivil Wars,” an annual conference series now in its third year. Participants have delved into the lives of a host of unsavory characters and practices. In the first three essays (among the best in the collection), Michael DeGruccio introduces the copious scavengers who made their way to Civil War battlefields looking for spent shells, buttons, bits of uniforms or trees, even human bones. What did they do with these remnants? Some sold them to relic hunters for profit. Others cherished them as curiosities, talismans, or symbols of conquest. If we paid more attention to material objects and less to the printed word, DeGruccio argues, we would realize that the urge to preserve the war’s memory began not when veterans started publishing memoirs and setting up organizations, but with this quest to touch and own the debris of battle. This discussion of people dedicated to preserving a piece of the war’s destruction nicely complements Megan Kate Nelson’s essay on the men and women who reveled in causing or dwelling on that destruction: soldiers who experienced a rush of power or satisfaction as they demolished their enemy’s property; illustrators, photographers, and printmakers who interpreted devastated landscapes using the conventions of the sublime or picturesque; and sightseers who found inspiration while wandering among the ruins. As callous as these practices might now seem, they are positively tame when compared to the acts of vicious selfishness displayed by the men in Rodney J. Steward’s fascinating essay on North Carolina’s western Piedmont district. Steward deals with the fallout in this area from the Confederate Act of Sequestration, passed in August 1861, which empowered men known as Receivers to seize property of anyone deemed disloyal to the Confederate cause. With sweeping powers to confiscate and sell property, they often simply stole from their fellow citizens—usually the poorest and least powerful. Having sold off the possessions of widows and children, they enriched themselves rather than sending the proceeds to the Confederate treasury.

This collection would be worth buying if only for these first three pieces and Berry’s terrific introduction, which immediately made me want to apply for membership in the “weirdlings,” as he calls his contributors. But there are other standout essays that provide for fascinating, if disturbing, reading as well as ideal material for classroom use. Joan Cashin’s take on how people coped with hunger in the Confederacy, for instance, could provide a powerful antidote for students steeped in the Gone with the Wind version of wartime privation, which inevitably made white southerners seem stronger and more united. Her hungry subjects are a lot less noble and a lot more human. When they feel...

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