The New Maine Times Book Review 27 April 2011

Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review 27 April 2011
CURIOSITIES OF THE CIVIL WAR:  STRANGE STORIES, INFAMOUS CHARACTERS, & BIZARRE EVENTS
By Webb Garrison.
Thomas Nelson, 2011
544 pages, $19.99
ISBN
978-1-59555-359-1
 

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

 
Countless books have been written about the American Civil War, but few have covered the unknown and obscure aspects of the war as completely as CURIOSITIES OF THE CIVIL WAR.
 
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the publisher Thomas Nelson has released an updated and expanded version of author Webb Garrison's 1994 classic of weird, unusual, and bizarre Civil War facts and anecdotes.
 
Garrison died in 2000, but not before writing more than 50 nonfiction books, including ATLANTA AND THE WAR and WHITE HOUSE LADIES, both published by Thomas Nelson in 1996. Garrison was a remarkable historian, as well as a university dean and college president.
 
This fun and fascinating book focuses not on the major battles and famous people that everyone knows about, but rather on the details and subjects forgotten by time, neglected and ignored by historians who did not know how (or want) to handle either humorous or controversial material. Garrison has no such qualms; he vividly describes atrocities, mutinies, scandals, banishment, use of hostages, friendly fire, Lotharios and jealous husbands, the best- and worst-dressed generals, and political backstabbing.
 
The Civil War lasted nearly 50 months, from 1861 to 1865, and fighting took place to some degree on every day of the war. As Garrison admits, "Millions of men and thousands of encounters produced a multitude of extraordinary things." And it is the extraordinary things that are most interesting.
 
Garrison's three criteria for determining what should be included in this collection were interest, novelty, and brevity.  For example, short vignettes describe the wacky post-war Confederate plot to hold Abraham Lincoln's dead body hostage, how an admiral built a warship for just $8, and how a ransom demand cost the Confederates a battle victory and the capture of Washington, D.C.
 
With wry humor and keen insight, he tells how and why President Lincoln "packed" the Supreme Court in 1862, why an Ohio congressman was banished from the United States in 1863, and how a devout clergyman invented a weapon widely used by both sides in the war.
 
One chapter deals with inventions and "infernal machines," offering perspective into the expediency of wartime discoveries, as well as the ingenuity and resourcefulness of soldiers and sailors. He describes the invention of condensed milk (Borden's, of course), refrigeration of meat, and the creation of instant (dehydrated) coffee. Weapons and military equipment are also discussed, highlighting such marvels as the mobile telegraph, the artillery rangefinder, and repeating rifles. Best, however, are strange creations like the locomotive air-powered cannon, saber-pistols, and the spectacular failure of the mule bombs of Graydon's Independent Spy Company in Texas.
 
People figure prominently, too. There is the wonderful story of the Confederate amputee who discovered that the cork leg of a dead Yankee fit him just fine, another about the 10-year-old drummer boy and the dance instructor who both became generals, and the famous cavalryman who was afraid of horses. Other tales include the policeman who saved Fort Sumter, the Fighting Parson and a shameful massacre, and the only Confederate private who was a millionaire.
 
Learn too about what soldiers, generals and politicians really thought about one another, about the Yankee soldier who was a sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and major all at the same time, and how three Confederate cavalrymen captured a U.S. Navy warship.
 
This is rich, entertaining American history, well told. For more interesting Civil War reading, see another classic, A CIVIL WAR TREASURY OF TALES, LEGENDS, AND FOLKLORE, edited by B.A. Botkin (Promontory Press, 1960).
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