Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Civil War History - Books, Travel, and a Movie

I'm not a history buff. In fact, history was probably my least favorite subject in school (well, right after physics maybe!). However, as I've grown older matured, I have developed an appreciation for and interest in history and how it defines who we are as a people and for the lessons we can learn from the past. Even with this new found appreciation, I don't remember dates and facts easily. As a teacher, I know that repetition is a key to learning, and I was reminded of this fact this past summer as I unintentionally encountered numerous Civil War learning opportunities in books, travel and a movie.

First, I happened to pick up a book from the New Books shelf at the library. Wedded to War is the first book in the new Heroines Behind the Lines series by Jocelyn Green. This fiction book follows Charlotte Waverly, a young well-to-do lady from New York, as she joins the Sanitary Commission as one of the first female nurses to the Union Army. This historical fiction was well researched and written, and I enjoyed learning more about how the Sanitary Commission began, its purpose in helping collect and distribute much needed supplies, and its efforts to improve the conditions of hospitals and camps.

I downloaded Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley to my Kindle (free, although I don't remember how I heard about it). This book was written by Mrs. Abraham Lincoln's dressmaker and was originally published in 1868. Mrs. Keckley wrote about her life as a slave, purchasing her and her son's freedom, moving to Washington, and establishing her own business as a dressmaker. She shared a behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House for President and Mrs. Lincoln. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and her desire to show Mrs. Lincoln in a more positive light than the negativity Mrs. Lincoln often garnered in the press.

At the same time, I discovered that my friend Ellyn was reading a brand new historical fiction book - Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini. We exchanged books, and I was delighted that this very well researched and written book filled in many of the gaps left in Mrs. Keckley's original story as it included more information about what was happening outside the White House - the Civil War, debates on emancipation, Lincoln's re-election and subsequent assassination.


On our Tennessee Road Trip back in July, we visited a couple of Civil War sites. Rather than taking the interstate all the way to the Smoky Mountains, we took a detour and stopped at the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth, Mississippi. This was a very nice historical site - we enjoyed strolling through the exhibits and watching the documentary where I learned that Corinth was the site of one of the first Contraband Camps during the Civil War. I'm sure I must have heard that term before but did not remember it, so I learned something new: runaway slaves were considered contraband by the Union Army because technically at that time they were still another man's property, however they were allowed to live and work (for pay) in these camps as the war (and debates about emancipation) raged on.

We met up with Robbie's brother, sister-in-law and nephews in Tennessee and spent one morning at the Chickamauga Battlefield. We were able to drive through the battlefield where there are numerous monuments and cannons lining the roads. Robbie's brother had done some research and discovered that one of their ancestors had fought in this battle as part of the 38th Ohio Infantry, so after getting directions to the general area from the helpful park rangers, we searched for and found the monument to that division.

Robbie and I had seen the Lincoln movie when it first premiered last fall and had ordered the DVD for our collection. After reading these books and visiting these sites over the summer, I had to watch it again so I could pay attention to how Mrs. Keckley was portrayed (because I didn't remember her in the movie) and watch the reactions in Washington as news of the various battles came in. In the movie, Mrs. Keckley appeared more as one of the White House servants, but now that I was familiar with her story, I had a better picture of how she fit into the picture and also knew that some of the scenes were probably adaptations of interactions she shared in her book (like conversations between President and Mrs. Lincoln that she would have witnessed as she was helping Mrs. Lincoln dress and prepare for an event). If you haven't seen this movie, we highly recommend it!

I have to admit that I really enjoyed my history review and the new lessons I learned about the Civil War over the summer and will be watching for more opportunities to study a subject in a variety of ways (books, movies, travel, etc). What have you learned or reviewed in a new way lately?


  1. I was glad to read your review of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker as it's on my very lengthy "to read" list. If you ever get as far north as Pennsylvania in your travels, don't miss an opportunity to go to Gettysburg. The horror of that war really becomes personal there. If you're still interested in another Lincoln book, I can highly recommend Team of Rivals. It's a long book, but totally worth the time. Much of the movie, Lincoln, was based on the book.

  2. glad we were able to share those books with each other this summer!

  3. A really interesting post Melissa. Physics was my least favourite subject too,, although History was always my favourite. I'm not good at dates and at exam time I used to hope that if I could write a good, readable essay it might distract from the fact it was a bit short on dates!

    I like the sound of the books about the dressmaker and I'm on the watch here for the Lincoln DVD. I'm looking forward to it

  4. I have always loved history and am thrilled that the Pirate has that love as well. I agree that Gettysburg is a very powerful experience. If you ever go I do recommend that you do the Widow's walking tour and the guided bus tour. After that we drove through stopping at areas on our own. It makes me smile that you are enjoying history through several different mediums :)

  5. I love everything about the Civil War. I read Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and enjoyed it. Certainly gave a good insight to Mrs. Lincoln. Also a book to add to your list would be Widow of the South. It's based on a true story about the family that owned Carnton Plantation that was turned in to a hospital during the war. You can tour it today and get a real feel for what happened there. The cemetery is pretty impressive too. If you ever make your way back to Nashville, you should add it to your list!


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