Primary source collection, oldie but a goodie

Ned Bradford, editor Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Markham, Ontario: Meridian Books, 1984 (original publication date, 1956).

The two things that stick out in my memory of this book were the pictures adorning most introductory pages to each source, and the catchy titles for each selection. When I picked it up off the shelf this afternoon, I was reminded of a few other details including density and variety.

As Bradford explains, the American Civil War story is a common one for American consumption and this fact results in many new books published on the topic each year. Yet, argues Bradford, the basic history of the war was written in the 1880s by the very men who were leaders. Commanders of Union and Confederate forces had been convinced to write up their experiences for Century Magazine. While asked to emphasize tactics and strategy, the magazine hoped the soldiers would throw in the odd story here and there to capture readers’ attention in different ways (xi).

The original collection resulted in four volumes organized both geographically and chronologically. For his version, Bradford chose to reduce the numbers of accounts by publishing a single volume. Bradford offers the readers useful terminology lessons regarding the organization of most armies in the era. This vocabulary list is useful, particularly because it clarifies points within the context of several of the essays. In addition, prior to each document is an introductory essay, offering the readers the proper context for every primary source.

Like the original, Bradford has published the documents with an order and chronology. The first, for example, comes to us from Abner Doubleday and focuses on his experiences at Forts Moultrie and Sumter in 1861. This particular document came with a very useful map of Charleston harbor – I have seen Sumter from a distance and have a sense of its placement, but the map clarifies. Doubleday’s entry introduces readers to the utility of the collection. If you wanted to produce an effective classroom exercise about the beginning of the war, having students read this account and do comparisons with other witnesses would be useful.

Having recently traveled to Chancellorsville and Gettysburg I took a quick look at those sections of Bradford’s edition. The former has a few documents including a comment from a Union general about Lee out- generaling his opponents and a piece reacting to the mortal wounding and death of Thomas Jackson. One of the great aspects of the collection is reflected in these samples – brevity is important and achievable even when trying to tell complicated stories. These documents are easy to edit and shorten or perhaps expand by including the comparative sources. The illustrations and maps are helpful as well.

Lee’s farewell message to the Army of Northern Virginia rounds out the collection and were it on its own, that inclusion might be called to question. Instead, the document can easily be made part of an assignment on the end of the war. The source is none other than the officer who took down Lee’s final message. Readers might consider asking questions about authenticity and for more information on this staff officer, Charles Marshall. Alternatively, teachers might seek out a Union officer’s description of reacting to the disbanding of the Army of Northern Virginia. The text is a useful one and should be considered as a reasonable substitute for the four full length editions.


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