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Reviewed by:
  • Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Ari Kelman
  • Catherine Clinton
Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman. New York: Hill & Wang, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8090-9474-5, 224pp., hardcover, $26.00.

The graphic novel format seems apt to resolve some of the challenges facing twenty-first-century educators. How does one convey some of the original riveting material and narrative power to engage a wider range of readers? As an educator, I was startled to be confronted in the mid-1990s with the label “books for nonreaders,” but the cinematic and visual elements of graphic novels can corral those who might disdain the density and dryness of many historical tomes. Fetter-Vorm and Kelman’s images and words allow readers to grasp historical transformations, as when the edifice of documents and concepts from the Constitution forward, piled in a Jenga-like fashion on page 13, comes tumbling down by page 24.

Fetter-Vorm’s palette offers a subtle invocation of sepia period photography inserted into the text for dramatic effect—dramatic and most effective in chapter 8: “A Photograph,” showing the ways and means of battlefield cameramen. But the triple-panel perspective in chapter 9: “Draft Numbers”—sharply color-differentiated at the outset, blurs over the course of the action of the draft riots. This technique does not have the impact of the interlacing storyline in chapter Six: “A Brick”—where we are moved by entwined tales of Mrs. Conroy (a Confederate soldier’s wife) with Mags and Joe (self-liberating slaves). This latter chapter vividly highlights how much a picture can be worth a thousand words.

But teachers must allay any suspicions that the power of words is not at work here. The format allows the traditional timeline to accompany and frame colorful tales spinning within each chapter. Each of the fifteen chapters focuses, as the authors outline in their introduction, with “an object, something specific and, on its own, unremarkable.” But through vivid storytelling, these objects take on deadly significance; see especially a bullet’s path (59–61). Chapter 10 particularly moved me: “Bodies” (which reflects the field’s sesquicentennial revisions on increased mortality by J. David Hacker), as did chapter 7 “The Bug,” which incorporates some of the [End Page 83] newest Civil War scholarship (see Jim Downs’s Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction).

Each chapter begins with headlines and coverage from a Civil War–era paper, from the Baltimore Banner in April 1861 proclaiming the fall of Fort Sumter, to the Shreveport Mercury in April 1865 announcing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Naturally, at both ends of this chockablock unfolding of events, compressing can shortchange evidence. After the battle of Fort Sumter, Battle Lines has a fallen soldier with a large spike through his torso being loaded into a boat and rowed back to shore. Perhaps the trauma of this invented injury, and the closing panel, is an imagined and/or metaphorical moment for the book’s opening. To give the authors credit, it is a lyrical hook.

The real casualties of the day included Irish-born Pvt. Daniel Hough, killed on the spot from an explosion during a surrender ceremony and then buried on the island, far from his Tipperary birthplace. Federal soldier Edward Galway, from County Cork, died from his burns later that night, while George Fielding (also from Eire, at Waterford), spent six weeks in the hospital, before recovering and returning North. Maybe the spike and the rowboat at sea seemed a better image, but this was invention, not selectivity.

Luckily, these authors prove more adept at selection than the few examples of fabrication, and most of the narrative is drawn from sources cited in the “Notes and Suggested Readings.” Thus, they telescope events and recreate significant scenes imbedded within many of the fine monographs cited. The pages vibrate with dramas within the caves at Vicksburg and the scattered skulls at the Wilderness. Excellent contextualization of the draft riots in New York City and bread riots in Richmond provide riveting insight. Plus, carefully reproduced images...


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pp. 83-84
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