Various Authors. Armchair Reader Civil War: Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray. Lincolnwood, IL: West Side Publishing; First edition (August 15, 2007). 464 pp. ISBN: 978-1412715638 $15.95 (Paperback).
What book would I give to my loved ones who know little to nothing about the Civil War? That’s a question I’ve often asked myself. This Armchair Reader book on the American Civil war aims to “provide a treasury of unique and intriguing tales, facts, and anecdotes that will delight Civil War buffs and casual readers alike.” In my opinion, they’ve got it half right.
Readers new to the Civil War will find many fascinating tidbits from the Civil War. These stories often seem to be phrased in such a way as to make them sound as exciting as possible. In some cases, the rephrasing seems to “bend” history a little farther than I would like to see. On page 55, it is claimed that Harriet Tubman planned and directed a military operation on June 2, 1863, the first such operation in American history to be planned and directed by a woman. Although Tubman was definitely at the front of the expedition as a guide, I think the wording is misleading to some extent. On page 64, it is mentioned that Robert E. Lee’s troops called him the “King of Spades” because he “often” had them dig in. While this is entirely accurate for June 1862 just before the Seven Days battles, this nickname disappeared amidst Lee’s numerous offensive victories through 1862 and early 1863 and the distance Lee managed to move the front away from Richmond. The author mentions this digging came in handy at Cold Harbor, which occurred almost two years to the month from which the quote would have been relevant. In addition, the author fails to mention EVERYONE was digging in as a matter of course by June 1864. Privates assumed they would be building breastworks any time they halted. A lot had changed in two years. I could go on in many instances, but these serve as good examples of what I mean. Most likely a novice to the study of the Civil War won’t think to question any of these tidbits in the ways I just demonstrated.
As a Civil War buff, I found myself repeatedly questioning them, however. And this leads to my next point. The book contains no notes or documentation of any kind. Not one. I’ve made it a habit over the years to pass on books without documentation, and only rarely have I broken this mostly hard and fast rule. When I do read something I question, my first thought is to check out the notes and see where the author got their information. Readers of this book will be unable to do that, however.
Another problem I have is the haphazard way in which the contents are laid out. They are not in chronological order. There are no chapters. They are not in any kind of subject order either. In fact, it seems like the editor just threw all of the anecdotes into a big bucket and placed them in the order he pulled them out. It is very jarring to have jump from First Bull Run to the St. Alban’s Raid to Grant’s Canal within a few pages.
One other odd item is the mention that these stories have never before been published. This was mentioned in a press release I received with the book as is also implied by the subtitle “Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray”. In reading through the book, I’d venture to guess 95%+ have been published in many different ways over the course of the last 147 years.
With all of the negatives out of the way, let me point out what this book DOES do well. It reaches out and grabs people with a passing interest in the Civil War and gives them a ton of interesting stories to pursue, if at the same time it doesn’t show them WHERE to look. This seems to me to be an ideal book to give to friends and family members who are showing some increased interest in the Civil War. All aspects and main themes of the war make their way into this book. Almost anyone can find some stories to hold their interest within these pages.
Civil War buffs will most definitely NOT want or need to read this book other than for some light reading. However, they most certainly will want to consider purchasing a copy for their children or nieces and nephews. The price is very reasonable for a fat paperback and looks to be able to hold up to some punishment. In any event, this is not a book I can in good faith recommend for regular readers of TOCWOC. I can and do recommend it for those who are young and/or new to the study of the war.
Special thanks goes to Ryan Kuntz of Healy & Schulte.
EDIT: Jim Miller at Civil War Notebook also posted a review of this book. It seems he found a lot of the same things I did.
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