Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dusty Diamond: An Unexpected Gift

My Civil War bookshelf has a lot of volumes that have seen their share of battle. Some were heavily researched, dog-eared, and marked for college papers and essays; others I've re-read for pleasure so many times they're permanently deformed for life - paperback covers peeled back like permanently half-eaten bananas; many are stained by rain, mud, sweat, and ink, as they've tromped the fields with me over the years.

Today, I noticed a book on the shelf whose outer appearances out-nastify all of the others combined. The hardback cover clings desperately to life, shredded and frayed around a spine that long ago succumbed to an unknown fight. A heavy front cover is now a loose, floating, dead weight, only connected to the spine by a thin and withering cloth. Binding? Surprisingly, if you don't count the cover and a missing early chapter, the binding is actually the book's strongest physical asset.

Yet, this book has not suffered the pangs of research; I have rarely read it for pleasure; and it's certainly never been on the field with me. Due to its delicate condition and the allergens contained in century-old dust, I can count on my hand the number of times I've turned its pages.

'Century-old dust?' That's right. This recently rediscovered book is The Civil War through the Camera: with Elson's New History of the War, published in New York by McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie in 1912. The ancient tome gives a narrative history of the war, aided by over a dozen reproduced paintings and hundreds of wartime photographs.

"Flanking the Enemy," by J.W. Gies (1901) For a better view, see 'n106' in the link provided below.

I feel like I've hit a gold mine. This diamond in the dust is blasting my eye-holes with images that reach to me straight from army camp, ship deck, and rail yard.

"SIGNALING ORDERS FROM GENERAL MEADE'S HEADQUARTERS, JUST BEFORE THE WILDERNESS" (1864) For a much closer view, see 'n351' in the link provided below.

Although I'm missing the title page and portions of the book up to Forts Henry and Donelson, my gut tells me that what I have here is a very early (1912-1920?), mostly complete edition of this spectacular resource. The only other information I have is from my good friend who gave it to me over ten years ago, who said that he got the book from his grandmother in West Virgina. In fact, there is (in my opinion) a beautifully handwritten inscription - in red ink - of a name and address on the front, inside cover.

A quick Internet search led me to some interesting initial results. First, I learned that "Elson" was Henry William Elson (1857 - 1935), a prolific writer and professor of history at Ohio State University. Also, in this period of the sesquicentennial, I was interested to learn that another edition of the same year (1912) was published by the Civil War Semi-centennial Society, Patriot Publishing Company. As the centennial commemoration was affected by the context of the times - namely, the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement - what context(s) helped to color the commemoration during the semi-centennial? Finally, I was excited to find that this very book is offered in digital format, so that all of us can enjoy its jewels online, without further deteriorating my precious find.

"CAIRO CITIZENS WHO MAY HAVE RECALLED THIS DAY" (1861) The caption reads, in part: "With his hands thrust in his pockets stands General Grant, next to General McClernand, who is directly in front of the pillar of the Cairo post-office. The future military leader had yet his great name to make, for the photograph of this gathering was taken in September, 1861, and when, later, the whole world was ringing with his praises the citizens who chanced to be in the group must have recalled that day with pride." For a much closer view, see 'n44' in the link provided above.

As always, I'd love to hear from you. If you have similar stories of surprising finds, more information about anything mentioned in this post, or enjoy browsing the digital version, feel free to share your thoughts!

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