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Party like it’s 1861

April 5, 2011

We’re little more than a week away from the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, a Federal military installation in Charleston Harbor, where, our history books tell us, the American Civil War officially began.

Grant

Until now, legions of commemorative tweets, blogs, multimedia and special anthologies have been busy celebrating and studying the fascinating events of 1859, 1860 and early 1861, which saw brutal fighting in Kansas, John Brown’s doomed raid at Harper’s Ferry, Va., the 1860 presidential victory of Republican Abraham Lincoln, the stunning first and second waves of Southern secession, the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and the birth of the Confederacy. I’ve studied the Civil War era for 20 years, and the public’s recently re-energized enthusiasm for — and for some rediscovery of — the era has made me very happy. It’s been just so damn fun.
 
Disunion, the excellent blog from the New York Times, has used diary entries, photos and other primary sources — coupled with mostly very good historical articles — to examine day by day the thinking of intellectuals, journalists, politicians, men and women alike, watching alongside them as the world they knew slowly crumbles all around them. The short essays, soldier profiles and stories in the 21st century capture with heartbreaking beauty what must have been an excruciating 19th century sense of hopelessness and terror, excitement and determination, dreams of a better world or grim resolve to preserve what had existed for generations.

The Associated Press has pulled together a package of multimedia, interactives, historical coverage and contemporary analysis of the events and the era. Much if not all of it should be available on their special Facebook page. Keep an eye on my Civil War Facebook group for interesting links to articles, essays and interactives. Crossroads and Bull Runnings are two great blogs by Civil War historians that never fail to enlighten me. In March, Kent State University Press unveiled the new editorial staff for the journal Civil War History, and University of North Carolina Press premiered The Journal of the Civil War Era. The latter is edited by William Blair, who just recently was editor of the former. I’ll be a faithful and passionate reader of both journals and note on this blog anything particularly interesting from their pages.

Forget the History Channel when it comes to Civil War documentaries. Full disclosure: The only thing I’m stupidly snobbish about is historical documentaries. Tip: If what you’re watching has commercial breaks, it’s not a real documentary. PBS is still the gold standard when it comes to intelligent exploration and analysis of the Civil War era, and they jumped into commemoration party with a rebroadcast of “The Civil War,” the factually flawed but otherwise gorgeous Ken Burns miniseries. But don’t stop there. Over the past decade, “American Experience” has produced a treasure chest of excellent pieces on the aforementioned psychotic John Brown, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Lincoln’s murder and its aftermath, the poet Walt Whitman, on U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, on the industrial economy over which they fought, and on the endlessly fascinating and horrific Reconstruction era.

But for some the real fun begins on April 12 at 4:30 a.m., the moment the rebel guns opened fire on Fort Sumter and the Federal troops inside. Fresh studies of the 1861 battles are sure to follow, along with examinations of the early Civil War careers of Grant, Lee, George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Braxton Bragg, George H. Thomas and others destined for star performances on the bloody stage. Finally, watch for some new book criticism from me as long-ago pre-ordered Civil War books are finally delivered, including Gary W. Gallagher’s “The Union War.”

Save me a seat and a cigar. I’ll definitely be at this party.

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