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Book Review: The Civil War: The First Year As Told By Those Who Lived It, Edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean

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Nonprofit publisher The Library Of America continues to amaze me with each series they put out. They have previously issued definitive editions of great American writers such as Henry James, Mark Twain, John Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and a host of others. But their latest project may prove to be their crowning glory.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of The Civil War, editors Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean have embarked on an unprecedented four-year, four-volume history of the crisis. Based on the newly released first volume, The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It, this will be the most complete look at that crucial era in American history ever.

The editors have combined an unprecedented variety of sources in the 840 pages that make up The Civil War: The First Year. Beginning with Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 and winding up a little over a year later in January 1862 with the appointment of Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war, the first volume vividly illustrates the first year of the inevitable confrontation.

Writings from famous names such as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Frederic Douglass, and even President Lincoln are presented side-by-side with contemporary diary entries and the like from plantation mistresses Kate Stone (from Mississippi), and Catherine Edmonston (from North Carolina). There are also pieces written by lesser known military figures and others.

In addition to the various writings, the book contains a thorough chronology of events from April 1860 to January 1862 — which helps flesh out exactly what was transpiring at the time of each article. There are also brief biographies of each of the 65 writers included in the book, and various notes.

In some ways, the haunting yellowed photograph of a young soldier on the cover is the most disturbing element of all. America has been through three bloody wars in my lifetime, and the rhetoric is always inflammatory. But I have never experienced anything as gut-wrenching as The Civil War must have been.

The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It is a landmark achievement in publishing, and when eventually completed will most likely be honored as the most authoritative history of the war ever. Not only is the story historically fascinating, but with the variety of perspectives on display it is also a riveting human drama.

The Library Of America have outdone themselves with this series — there is simply nothing else like it.

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