Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review: Life in Civil War America, by Michael J. Varhola

The Civil War was a major event in the history of the United States - a clash of cultures that affected nearly every state in the young nation. 

Michael J. Varhola has crafted a book that informs and entertains the casual reader and the interested historian about life in the 1860's time period.  This is not a book about the Civil War per se - the events, battles, personalities, etc.  It is a book about how the people in the United States lived during that time.

Do you want to know:

*  what was a Jake? A Joe? A John?
*  what was a goober grabber, a corn cracker, or a tobacco worm?
*  who were Ira Frederick Aldridge, Charlotte Saunders Cushman, and Joice Heth?
*  what wages were paid to civilians, and to soldiers on both sides?
*  what was pop skull, switchel and embalmed beef?

You can find out about these terms, and hundreds more, in this book.

The chapters of the book outline the content of this work:

1.  North and South: One Nation, Two Peoples - a look at each state with an emphasis on their contributions to the war effort
2.  Where People Lived: Life in City, Town and country - including architectural styles, costs of homes and housing.
3.  Education: From Schoolhouses to Universities - review of opportunities in each state
4.  Slang and Idiom: How People and Events Shaped Language
5.  Religion: What People Believed - denominations, movements, benevolent societies, and more
6.  Fun and Games: How People Entertained Themselves - games, music, sports, theater, circuses, vices
7.  Wages and Currency: Coins, Greenbacks, and Postal Currency
8.  Clothing and Dry Goods: What Items Cost and the Impact of Shortage
9.  Food and Diet: How People Ate at Home and on the War Front
10.  Technology:  Inventions That Changed Life and Warfare - including military, medical, farm, transportation, communication, photography
11.  The War on the Home Front: The Draft and Civil Unrest - including attitudes, slavery, reconstruction, terrorism
12.  Brothers at War: Billy Yank, Johnny Reb
13.  Arms, Equipment and Uniforms,: Supplying the Servicemen - weapons, uniforms, rank and insignia, flags

Appendix A; Civil War Photography, by Maureen A. Taylor
Appendix B: Civil War Timeline
Appendix C:  Bibliography and Recommended Books
Appendix D - Resources
Appendix E - Songs and Poetry

Each chapter ends with definitions of common terms, slang and idioms of the time. 

The scope of the book is staggering, but the author manages to convey the important features and realities of daily life in the 1860's, from big cities to small towns and plantations.  There are sections that explain military life in the Army and Navy, the typical diets, etc.

The Appendices cover a Civil War timeline, tips for researching ancestors in this time period, Civil War resource books, periodicals, websites and historic sites.

I really enjoyed reading this book in order to be able to understand and relate the events, habits, attitudes, language, education and other features of mid-19th century America.  It was fascinating and informative, without being pedantic or tedious.  The use of period photographs and the language terms help to keep my interest.  I think it is an absolutely necessary book for the casual historian's bookshelf and for public libraries.

More information about the book can be found on the Shop Family Tree site. The book can be pre-ordered there.  The projected publication date is late February 2011.

Michael J. Varhola, Life in Civil War America, F+W Media, Inc., 2011.  $22.99 (retail). 

Disclosure:  I was sent a link to a PDF early edition of this book by F+W Media, Inc. for the purposes of reviewing the book, and was promised a hard copy of the book when it was available.

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