Book review: 'The New York Times: Disunion' tells of new tech meeting old times

CorrespondentJune 15, 2013 

  • Nonfiction The New York Times: Disunion Edited by Ted Widmer

    Black Dog & Leventhal, 450 pages

In his autobiographical “Specimen Days & Collect” (1882) Walt Whitman observed that the Confederates’ firing on Fort Sumter sparked “the volcanic upheaval of the nation” and “at once substantially settled the question of disunion.” Whitman’s book consisted of brief, titled fragments on his war experiences, what readers in the digital age might term blogs.

Whitman would have welcomed “The New York Times: Disunion,” edited by Brown University historian Ted Widmer. His book includes 106 articles gleaned from more than 400 original blogs from the Times’ Opinionator website.

The posts collected by Widmer disseminate scholarship more dynamically, less elaborately than academic journals do. They feature “the snap, crackle and pop of lively online writing,” he notes, “with quick links, illustrations and a spirit of experimentation.”

The blogs – now print essays – underscore contingency, unpredictability and variety during the first two years of America’s bloodiest war. They examine its international impact, its innumerable personalities, its rich social and technological history, and also many obscure aspects of the war.

For example, in “From San Marino, With Love,” Don H. Doyle rescues from obscurity President Abraham Lincoln’s diplomatic communiqués during the secession crisis with the leaders of the tiny nation San Marino. Perched atop the Apennine Mountains on the Adriatic side of the Italian peninsula, San Marino, founded in 301 A.D., was the oldest surviving republic in the world.

“We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, which you are now suffering,” wrote San Marino’s Regent Captains, “therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions.” Touched by the regents’ letter, Lincoln responded: “You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing.” Anticipating the language of his Gettysburg Address delivered 1 1/2 years later, Lincoln added, “It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction. I have faith in a good result.”

Once the war erupted, Lincoln also had to hone his diplomatic skills at home. When, in August 1861, Gen. John C. Frémont issued what Michael Fellman terms “The First Emancipation Proclamation,” unilaterally subjecting the Union Western Department to martial law and emancipating Missouri slaves, Lincoln countermanded the general’s edict. More than “a duel between a buffoonish maverick general and an ever-patient and sagacious president,” Fellman explains, Frémont’s decree constituted “an important precedent.” He “articulated the previously unthinkable, employing means that were, as Lincoln emphasized, extra-constitutional under ordinary circumstances.” Ironically, more than a year later Lincoln followed Frémont’s path.

In “Boxers, Briefs and Battles,” Jean Huets examines how underwear for Civil War soldiers was always scarce and became coveted spoils of war. She insists that “the humble suit of underwear highlights the Civil War soldier himself: his endurance and fortitude, his ability to make do with whatever conditions and supplies came along and his sense of humor.”

Though seemingly comical, the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps, as Kenneth Weisbrode explains, dated back to the 1850s when two Southern secretaries of war, Jefferson Davis and John Floyd, championed camels as fuel-efficient pack animals along the western frontier. In February 1861, Texas Rebels captured Camp Verde, where most of the camels resided, but the Confederates never employed them, and Lincoln’s government ultimately abandoned the experiment with dromedaries. “Would the camels have made a fine American cavalry?” Weisbrode asks. “Would they have become as ubiquitous a symbol of the Wild West as the horse and cowboy?”

Though Whitman worried that “the real war will never get into the books,” Widmer’s “The New York Times: Disunion” makes a good case for high-quality blogs as accurate, entertaining Civil War history.

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte. His latest book is “A Just and Lasting Peace: A Documentary History of Reconstruction.”

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