Book Review: Unforgettables: Winners, Losers, Strong Women, and Eccentric Men of the Civil War Era

Unforgettables: Winners, Losers, Strong Women, and Eccentric Men of the Civil War Era. By John C. Waugh. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2024. Paperback, 240 pp., $22.95.

Reviewed by Jonathan Noyalas

One year after the Civil War sesquicentennial ended, historian James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr. penned the last “signature publication” for Virginia’s sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. In that slim volume, Civil War Echoes, Robertson exalted the power of biography as a means to encounter and learn from the past. Investigating the lives of individuals, regardless of status, Robertson contended “should be the primary… avenue in the quest for knowledge.”[1] While biographies offer a valuable lens through which to explore history, that medium also serves as a useful tool to spark interest in someone who has not yet been bitten by the history bug. This is the intent of John Waugh’s exceptional volume.

Unlike Waugh’s many previous books, including his classic The Class of 1846, this volume does not break any new scholarly ground. Waugh freely admits in the book’s opening that is not his intent. Through forty brief biographical sketches, what Waugh terms “word portraits,” the author hopes the book will “rekindle” one’s “passion” for history and “hook a few non-believers onto the undeniable drama of history.” (xii)

Elegantly written and based on sound scholarship, Waugh’s biographical sketches offer accessible introductions to some of the Civil War era’s most important personalities. The author’s choice of subjects is diverse. Waugh offers biographies of figures one would expect in a volume of this nature—Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. Also included are lesser-known characters, but nonetheless significant figures such as Sarah Hildreth, the wife of Union general Benjamin F. Butler; Kate Chase, the daughter of Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury; and Mary Ellen Marcy, the spouse of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.

In addition to essential biographical information, Waugh’s “word portraits” highlight the person’s significance to the Civil War era and reveal the inner demons some confronted. For example, Waugh highlights President Franklin Pierce’s battle with alcohol. Inclusion of such material such as these aids in making the book’s figures, many of whom are larger than life, more human. Furthermore, Waugh utilizes these biographical sketches to rescue the reputations of some of the volume’s subjects. For instance, Waugh portrays President Millard Fillmore, a president to whom historians have customarily not been kind, as someone who “did what he could to help keep the Union and indivisible.” (23) While some historians might quibble with Waugh’s conclusion, there is no denying that such claims are rooted in solid scholarship.

Waugh’s smartly written volume also serves as an introduction to some of the most important books published about the people whom Unforgettables explores. Throughout the biographical sketches Waugh introduces such important historians as Roy P. Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, one of the staples for anyone interested in our nation’s sixteenth president, and Nell Irvin Painter, author of numerous important works, including Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol.

Engaging, profusely illustrated, well-researched, cogently crafted, and based on sound scholarship, Waugh’s book is informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Although the book is geared toward general audiences, seasoned historians should likewise find value in this book as a quick refresher about some of the Civil War era’s most significant and intriguing characters.

[1] James I. Robertson, Jr., Civil War Echoes: Voices from Virginia 1860-1891 (Richmond, VA: Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, 2016), 13.


Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute and a professor in the history department at Shenandoah. He is the author or editor of sixteen books including most recently “The Blood-Tinted Waters of the Shenandoah”: The 1864 Valley Campaign’s Battle of Cool Spring (Savas Beatie, 2024).

2 Responses to Book Review: Unforgettables: Winners, Losers, Strong Women, and Eccentric Men of the Civil War Era

  1. Remember: If you’re wealthy, you’re “eccentric.” If you’re poor, they send you to the looney bin…

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