Monday, October 19, 2020

Booknotes: No Greater Calamity for the Country

New Arrival:
No Greater Calamity for the Country: North-South Conflict, Secession, and the Onset of Civil War by Leon Reed (Little Falls Bks, 2019).

From the description: "The year-long crisis that started with the first summer months of the 1860 presidential campaign and ended in the first major combat at Manassas is one of the most consequential 12 months in American history. Over that eventful year, one of the two major political parties shattered (and lost the next six presidential elections -- the longest losing streak in American history). Four regional candidates were nominated for president, and the minority supporting secession in southern states shifted gradually to strong majorities. At the same time, many in the north who were inclined to shrug off the departure of southern states came around to strong opposition and answered President Lincoln's call for a volunteer army."

Of course, a great multitude of books have discussed the months of upheaval surrounding the outbreak of civil war and the historical figures that influenced them, but Leon Reed's No Greater Calamity for the Country: North-South Conflict, Secession, and the Onset of Civil War sets itself apart by using an extensive family archive as the primary interpretive lens through which to examine the period. More from the description: "This book uses hundreds of contemporary newspaper articles, diaries, and the contents of a never-before-seen contemporary scrapbook to explain how the country descended into civil war. It introduces us to the major characters and events of this vital period as well as more obscure people and events that helped shape our great American tragedy."

The aforementioned scrapbook, the work of Reed ancestor Hiram Roosa (who was the corresponding secretary of the New York Military Association that sponsored NY militia units), holds an extensive collection of original correspondence, news articles, photographs, and artifacts (ex. flag fragments and like souvenirs) of significant people and events. However, the real heart of the material is the more than 300 patriotic envelopes (mostly pro-Union) that Roosa collected [readers might recall Steven Boyd's recent scholarly study of the topic in Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War (LSU Press, 2010)]. In addition to providing an "overview of the earliest days of the Civil War" and addressing people and events of the period, the illustrated envelopes "also provide some insights in the state of public opinion" and how that changed over time.

Roosa started his collection just after Lincoln was elected and mostly ceased work on it by early 1862. The collection will perhaps draw special attention from those interested in NYSM regiments as many of the documents and artifacts were donated to Roosa by members of those units (particularly men from the 20th NYSM, the "Ulster Guard"). The book has a sizable bibliography, and the text is annotated through numerous footnotes. As one might expect, the volume is highly visually oriented, with most pages containing one or more scrapbook images.

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