And What Made It So Civil

A friend of mine who never asks small questions inquired “What was so important about the Civil War?”

I explained all the usual points: defining moment in the nation’s history, brother against brother, determining factor in politics for a century, the loss of nearly a generation of young Americans. She listened with tepid attention. The REAL problem, as it turned out, was that she had tried to read Gone With the Wind again and thought it was a silly soap opera. I couldn’t help her there. But I didn’t really think it was the fault of Americans who took the war seriously, either.

Be that as it may, this year’s Book Fair includes the Civil War collection of a man who had his own complaints. He passed away in 1938, but the collection has been passed down through the generations more or less intact. What mattered to him, it seems, was that his father was an officer for the Union at gettysburg. And, as he complains in a letter to Henry Horner, Illinois Governor and Civil War expert, none of the books about Gettysburg tells the storycorrectly. That is, ahem, that none of the books tells the story quite the way his father told it. He goes on for four pages in the letter about how his father said the Battle went, up to and including the period afterward, when his father made his way on leave to Baltimore to talk to the mother of one of his buddies killed in the battle. His carbon of this letter is still enclosed in the book he lent Governor Horner.

If you make it to this year’s Book Fair, you’ll find more of his collection in the Military History section and the Collectors section. He had any number of regimental histories and autobiographies of authors, as well as the memorial book of that buddy of his father’s killed at Gettysburg. Among our collectibles, you will find General Longstreet’s discussion of what he did in the war (From Manassas to Appomattox, 1896, the edition with the greyclad arm bearing the sword) and also the book by Helen Longstreet (Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, 1904) published after his death so she could point out even more strongly that he was not responsible for the South losing the war. You can thus acquire two highly collectible versions of events at Gettysburg which once belonged to a man only one generation removed from the fighting.

But be careful. You may run into a volunteer who’ll demand, “What’s so important about the Battle of Gettysburg?”

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