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The New Civil War

June 2024
2min read

TWENTY YEARS AGO I WAS WORKING in the American Heritage book division side by side with our (now) senior editor Jane Colihan, the two of us younger, of course, and darker-haired, and glummer. This last was the case because we were fighting a losing battle, and the losing was the more bitter for the fact that our company had not only started the fight but had won it for years.

The fight was selling illustrated histories by direct mail—which meant that rather than exposing your book to the infinite perils of critics, distributors, and stores, you worked up a compelling brochure, mailed it to potential customers, and persuaded them to commit in advance.

For a while, American Heritage was the only company to do this. But now we had been joined in the field (I’ll drop the military metaphor before I have to write the word routed ) by such formidable competitors as Time Inc., which was not only putting out splendid illustrated histories but doing so by the series.

Jane and I and the rest of us in the division were struggling to produce a viable title. Some of our efforts were grisly (we were ordered to put together something called The American Girl , which, Jane and I felt confident, would receive in 1977—a year not lacking in feminist consciousness—about the same greeting MeI Brooks’s producers expected for their show Springtime for Hitler ), and some were fine (a compilation of photographs from the Library of Congress, selected by Oliver Jensen). None of them sold very well, but we kept going—largely, I think, because we were following the will-o’-the-wisp of a book that had been published nearly twenty years earlier: The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War .

It was superb. Our founding editor Bruce Catton wrote the text; it was illustrated as no previous Civil War history had ever been; it won a special citation from the Pulitzer committee. And the public responded; I have no idea how many people bought it, but old records show it proved worth our while to send out thirteen million brochures.

This book has remained so durable a standard that it seemed faintly shocking to me when Viking proposed working with us and Byron Preiss Visual Publications to bring out a new edition. But as the project went forward, I began to see why it was time. The decades that have passed since the book came out have not brought advances in the kind of prose that Bruce Catton wrote, but they have enlarged the idea of what constitutes a pictorial history.

The new edition, many years in the making, began with Stephen W. Sears, a Civil War historian deeply interested in the conflict’s visual legacy, planning how best to augment the original text. The project grew, and in the end, under the direction of James M. McPheron, whose own Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1989, and Noah Andre Trudeau, evolved into The American Heritage New History of the Civil War .

It’s here now, and really is new—and very fine too. This work should stand as the definitive single-volume history of the war well into the next millennium. Hundreds upon hundreds of paintings, drawings, and photographs tell the story of the conflict, from self-consciously idyllic canvases of the prosperous nation it was about to fragment through grand set pieces (a painting by Paul Philippoteaux—who did the famous Gettysburg cyclorama—of Grant at Fort Donelson that suggests all the general’s patient, unshowy strength) and amateur efforts (an eerie, prim little view of Camp Douglas by a Pennsylvania private that gives no hint of the fact that Confederate prisoners of war were dying there at the rate of eighteen a day) on through to Alfred Waud’s affecting eyewitness pencil sketch of Lee riding away from the McLean House at Appomattox.

The pictures are accompanied by lively and informative captions full enough actually to form a separate text—a narrative longer, indeed, than Catton’s original one. But it is Catton’s text that is at the moral heart of the work, and it flows through the new marshaling of pictures and eyewitness accounts, lucid, melancholy, wholly idiomatic yet lit with restrained poetry. Here is his summary of what the war left behind: “And, finally, there was the simple memory of personal valor—the enduring realization that when the great challenge comes, the most ordinary people can show that they value something more than they value their own lives. When the last of the veterans had gone, and the sorrows and bitterness which the war created had at last worn away, this memory remained. The men who fought in the Civil War, speaking for all Americans, had said something the country could never forget.”


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