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The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society (review)

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 4, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 108-111 | 10.1353/cwe.2014.0004

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Taking on the methodological framework of the highly successful History of the World in 100 Objects (2011), produced by Neil MacGregor in collaboration with the British Museum, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has delved deep into the New-York Historical Society archives to unearth fifty artifacts, including letters, journals, artworks, curios, and ephemera, with which he shapes a rich and remarkably extensive Civil War history. In fifty finely crafted essays that chart a rough chronology of the war, Holzer examines the society's most "extraordinary" and famous items as well as the "more personal and unusual relics in the collection, equally rare and unique if less widely known or influential": thus General Grant's handwritten terms for Confederate surrender and Abraham Lincoln's scribbled calculations of a possible election win sit alongside one lieutenant's carefully mounted array of military buttons and a charred bible saved from the Colored Orphan Asylum by one of its children during the New York riots of 1863 (xxiii).

The study encompasses encounters with the war told on "national, state, city, and intensely personal" levels, though its predominant topographical focus is New York City (xxii). Nevertheless, the attention Holzer pays to the neglected wartime experience of civilians and combatants in America's metropolis is engagingly nuanced, and becomes especially interesting when considered alongside the other main narrative arc of the collection: America's move from slavery to emancipation. Opening with a shocking essay on a child's pair of slave shackles, and closing with a discussion of Lincoln's signature on the Thirteenth Amendment, the book maps the ways in which a nation began to redefine itself in the wake of momentous change, offering an especially valuable insight into the tangible consequences of emancipation.

While this cabinet of curiosities presents a fresh and fascinating potted history of the war that is particularly accessible to the general public, Holzer's careful extraction of stories from objects participates not only in a wider, interdisciplinary discourse on material culture instigated by works such as Steven Lubar and David Kingery's seminal collection History from Things: Essays on Material Culture (1993), but also in an emerging move to understand the place of object matter in the field of Civil War scholarship. To date, few scholarly works have taken the war's material culture as their main focus, and those that have tend to take the development and modernization of military technology and warfare as their theme. Essays such as Joan E. Cashin's "Trophies of War" (2011), published in this journal, and Michael DeGruccio's chapter "Letting the War Slip through Our Hands" in Stephen Berry's collection Weirding the War (2011) have begun to outline what it would mean to read the war on material terms. Both Cashin and DeGruccio examine the nineteenth-century impulse in civilians to souvenir-hunt at battle sites, or in the military to loot from noncombatant homes and from the bodies of the war dead. Yet, while these surveys of grotesque pilfering start to suggest the ways in which war mutated immediate human responses to matter, they leave unanswered questions regarding the lasting implications of this new relationship with materiality and the ways in which people went about understanding the debris they had taken once they had left the chaotic space of the battlefield. Indeed, DeGruccio's essay advises that before we can address the war's materiality, we must "reckon with the limits of spoken and written language." This dichotomy, though, should be challenged: considering the war's debris alongside written accounts of it, or the layers of artifice applied linguistically and artistically to a relic over time, offers a potentially rich way into understanding the material structures of meaning-making instigated by the war.

Holzer does not confront the theoretical implications of his work directly, yet some of his essays demonstrate how the war's objects can start to move beyond the realm of curio to be read as complex sites at which cultural, artistic, social, and political meanings intersect. Indeed, Holzer's best essays are those that probe the origins of the artifact presented, and chapters on a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln's right hand cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens from...



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