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2013: The Year I Emerged From Reading About the U.S. Civil War

December 31, 2013

Some might say the U.S. Civil War ended 148 years ago. For me, it ended on February 10, 2013, when I read what I hope will be my last Civil War book for a while.

I’ve been supplementing my itinerant elementary and secondary school education with a review of U.S. history by reading biographies of the presidents and other non-fiction works. Of course, they’re in chronological order. And yes, the rack of clothing in my closet is organized by color. It’s true, I make sure nothing hangs off the edges of tables or bookshelves so that a cat I don’t have doesn’t accidentally jump onto the overhanging object and fall. I used to read a paper copy of the New York Times. The newspapers would stack up (in order, of course) on some crucial kitchen table real estate. Now, only my iPhone and I know how far behind I am. Thank goodness. It’s kind of embarrassing the other way.

I started this Presidential biography et cetera thing in 2005 with George Washington. I’m up to Garfield (He’s #20; Lincoln was #16.) The Garfield biography I read was written by a scholar of U.S. surgery history. Bottom line: don’t let anyone stick two dozen different dirty fingers into a bullet wound. Yuck.

On February 10th, I finished reading The Civil War in Fairfax County by Charles Mauro. That was the close of the Civil War for me, despite the fact Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin has been sitting on my Kindle for at least three years. There’s only so much of the Civil War a person can take, and I’ve been reading about it for over four years. I cry every single time Lincoln dies! It seems only fitting that my time reading about the Civil War should last no longer than the actual event. (Damn you, Team of Rivals! I will delete you if I have to. I know how Lincoln’s story ends! What if he had lived and the next hundred years of oppression might not have happened?!?)

Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson was my favorite Civil War book of the last year. Higginson was a white man from the north, a militant human rights activist and a former Unitarian minister. He commanded a South Carolina regiment of African-American soldiers. His non-fiction account, published in 1869, gives the world observant and personal glimpses of a dark and strange past:

Great are the advantages of military discipline: for anything perplexing, detail a subordinate.


She [a baby in the regiment] crowed and gurgled and made gestures with her little fists, and screamed out what seemed to be her advice on the military situation, as freely as if she had been a newspaper editor. Except that it was rather difficult to understand her precise direction, I do not know but the whole Rebel force might have been captured through her plans. And at any rate, I should much rather obey her orders than those of some generals whom I have known: for she at least meant no harm, and would lead one into no mischief.

My favorite of Higginson’s observations was a moment when someone on the wrong side of history and decency realizes the tables have turned against her. Higginson accompanies Corporal Robert Sutton to the residence where he was once enslaved:

However, I [Higginson] wished to present my credentials: so, calling up my companion, I said that I believed she had been previously acquainted with Corporal Robert Sutton? I never saw a finer bit of unutterable indignation than came over the face of my [white] hostess, as she slowly recognized him. She drew herself up, and dropped out the monosyllables of her answer as if they were so many drops of nitric acid. ‘Ah,’ quoth my lady, ‘we called him Bob!

In my mind, I envision the Robert Suttons of the world always triumphing.




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