How appropriate that a book about artifacts should be a beautiful artifact unto itself. Such is certainly the case with the Smithsonian Institution’s new Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection.
This handsome new coffee table book contains 368 glossy pages of full-color photos and text that provide an outstanding overview of the war, from the prewar controversies over slavery that triggered the conflict through the postwar efforts of reunion and memorialization.
Best of all, the overall story is told through hundreds of items in the Smithsonian’s collection, drawn from twelve of its museums.
Each of the 150 entries—to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the war—is built around one or more items from the Smithsonian’s collection. In some cases, it might be a portrait, sketch, or photograph; in others, it might be a piece of material culture like a sidearm or a uniform coat representative of many similar things; in others, it might be a unique, iconic object like the stump of the 22-inch oak tree felled by small arms fire during the fight at Spotsylvania’s Mule Shoe on May 12, 1864.
The Smithsonian’s collection boasts some stunning artifacts—the stovepipe hat President Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater on the night he was assassinated; the chairs Lee and Grant sat in while signing surrender papers in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox; the stuffed-and-mounted hide of Phil Sheridan’s warhorse, Winchester. The collection dazzles, and the book shows it off to the best possible effect. There’s “wow” after “wow” on page after page.
The Smithsonian’s curators and historians wrote the text that accompanies each entry, but authorial credit goes to “The Smithsonian,” as if the institution itself authored the book. Editor Neil Kagan wisely lets the artifacts do the talking, so perhaps the authorship is appropriate.
Necessarily, the history is written in broad strokes so that the book can cover a lot of ground. The book admirably goes beyond the military story to include social, political, and economic stories, too. It truly is epic in its scope even if not in its depth. Most Civil War buffs will know these stories already, at least in a general sense. However, there are enough tidbits tucked into the book to keep any buff reading.
This is really the kind of book, though, that any buff is going to want on the coffee table as a way to show off just how cool the Civil War really is. This is spectacular stuff, the book seems to say. Take a look for yourself.
Indeed, that’s what makes this book such a perfect entre for non-buffs. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection is one of the most impressive single volumes to visually capture Civil War history. It’s accessible, it’s concise, and it’s gorgeous—a beautiful testament to America’s great story.