Monday, September 08, 2008

The Words of War by Donagh Bracken

The Words of War by Donagh Bracken
Copyright 2007
History Publishing Company/NF
320 pages, including bibliography & index

The expulsion of the steamer Star of the West from the Charleston harbor yesterday morning was the opening of the hall of the Revolution. We are proud that our harbor has been so honored. We are more proud that the State of South Carolina, so long, so bitterly, so contemptuously reviled and scoffed at, above all others, should this proudly have thrown back the scoff of her enemies. Entrenched upon her soil, she has spoken from the mouth of her cannon, and not from the mouths of scurrilous demagogues, fanatics and scribblers. Condemned, the sanctity of her waters violated with the hostile purpose of reinforcing enemies in our harbor, she has not hesitated to strike the first blow, full in the face of her insulter. Let the United States Government bear, or return at their good will, the blow still tingling about her ears -- the fruit of her own bandit temerity. We would not exchange or recall that blow for millions! It has wiped out a half century of scorn and outrage. -- p. 2 of The Words of War, quoted from the Charleston Mercury, Jan. 10, 1861

What led you to pick up this book? I've been on a bit of a Civil War kick. I'm afraid it's only just begun.

Summarize the book without giving anything away. The Words of War is nonfiction. It contains dispatches from field reporters for the Charleston Mercury and The New York Times, during the Civil War, as well as notes by the author and "What the Historians Say", at the end of each chapter. The author's objective was to show how coverage of the war was slanted. The book also contains illustrations (which are small, but really add to the sense of place) and reproductions of battle maps. The latter tended to be appear scanned and blurry or pixilated, often to the point that even a magnifying glass was useless. So, I purchased The West Point Atlas of War: The Civil War.

Obviously, that qualifies me as a total nerd. I eventually found that it worked best to read the text in the atlas and study the maps before reading the dispatches in The Words of War. In that way, I became familiar with the generals, land formations, movement of troops, etc., before reading dispatches. I doubt that would be necessary for those who are most likely to pick up this book, but my lack of understanding of the war, its leaders and even the battles (apart from having heard a few names you can't miss, like Gettysburg, and knowing a bit about the Siege of Vicksburg because I happen to live in Vicksburg) was -- and probably still is -- startling. I needed all the help I could get.

What did you like most about the book? I loved the colorful language of the time period, the soap-box declarations of victory, the drama, as well as the overall view of the war from two different angles.

Ridicule was a weapon the press on both sides of the war used particularly well. Truthfulness would suffer as a result. The New York Times took aim at Stonewall Jackson and his men just prior to the battle at Antietam, describing Jackson and his men entering Harpers Ferry, which they had just taken: "(He was) dressed in the coarsest kind of homespun, seedy and dirty at that, uniform, wearing an old hat which any Northern begger would consider an insult to have offered him. In his general appearance, he was in no respect to be distinguished from the mongrel, barefooted crew who followed his fortunes." Hardly an objective analysis of what was then a conquering army. -- from the Author's Commentary on the battle of Antietam, p. 109

The dispatches are reproduced verbatim, errors and all, occasionally including updated information or retractions. It was obvious that both sides were determined to claim victory and the numbers of killed, wounded, prisoners and names of officers presumed wounded or dead were so inflated or altered that it's hard to believe how deluded the readers on each side must have been. I should know better after my husband and I have been on the inside of several national news stories that were unbelievably slanted (Hurricane Katrina, Tropical Storm Gustav and another story I still don't talk about publicly but which involved an airplane). Interesting to find that this has been the case for 150 years. The Words of War is a fascinating piece of Civil War documentation.

What did you think of the characters? The "characters", in this case, were real people fighting a real war, slogging through mud with wagons of artillery, charging up hills and riding horses through and around a dense wilderness, shooting at each other, asking each other for cease-fires in order to bury their dead -- and the men who wrote about them. I found them all utterly fascinating. Because I knew so little, I was nearly two-thirds of the way through The Words of War before things began to really click and I finally was able to keep the generals straight. At that point, I really started to get into it and to understand why some people spend their entire adulthoods studying the personalities, the geography and the details of the Civil War (and why some of them reenact battles).

Recommended? Yes, particularly for those who already have an interest in and knowledge of the American Civil War. If you're as ignorant as I am, I recommend buying an atlas to go along with the reading of The Words of War if you're not interested in looking up battles online (I preferred to flop out on the bed with my maps and my book and study the two).

Cover thoughts: I quite like the cover, but I have to admit I felt a little misled, at first. When I read "Civil War Battle Reportage", I initially expected news articles rather than dispatches from the field. But, I really just glanced at the cover and dove right in. Admittedly, I didn't pay much attention to cover blurb and flap information. I love the dramatic illustration on the cover.

In general: It took me forever to read this book -- about 7 or 8 weeks. That length of time was partially due to the fact that I was determined not to read it without knowing who the heck the reporters were talking about and where everything took place. It's a geek issue. I wasn't just going to skim the book, rate it and move on. I wanted to know exactly what really happened in order to understand which facts were distorted.

So, I took my time, familiarized myself with the characters and battles, with the help of the military atlas, and really studied as if I were doing a major project on the Civil War. I had to save the two books for hours when my concentration was at a peak, but it was well worth the effort. The only disappointment was that occasionally there were times that field coverage was just not there. In those cases, often there was an equally engrossing reason why -- for example, a reporter who bragged that he could drink his competitors under the table and then missed a battle because he ended up unconscious. That one just happened to occur toward the end of the Siege of Vicksburg. Darn.

An important caveat: I think this book could be made more accessible to the layperson via lengthier introductory notes about each battle, including general descriptions of the geography and a cast of characters. There were many cases in which I had to study the maps at length (here, the downfall of the atlas is highlighted: state lines are so faintly marked that they're very hard to see) just to figure out the states in which troop movements took place. Again, most people who read this book will probably not have any trouble with that, but from the standpoint of a person new to reading about the Civil War, a little bit more description would have gone a long way. Once you know who is involved and where the battles occur, those dispatches make a lot more sense.

Now reading:
The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner
Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland (almost finished with this one)
Chameleon, Butterfly, Dragonfly by Cindy Silbert

On this day in Bookfool's Reading History:
In 2003, I was reading The Nanny by Melissa Nathan (really enjoyed that one)
In 1997, I'd just finished Diana in Private by Lady Colin Campbell (I have no memory of this book, whatsoever) and had begun to read Darkness Be My Friend by John Marsden (love, love, love this Australian YA series)

I spent my weekend:

Shoving furniture around, attending a swim meet, cleaning house and reading. Today, I freshened up the dry foods and bottled water, in case Hurricane Ike heads our way. He started to turn west, probably because we're now well supplied and I was chanting, "Right turn, right turn, right turn." We were hoping to end up on the "dry side" of the hurricane. Now, I'm encouraging him to continue the westward jog by repeating, "Left turn, left turn, left turn." Whatever works.

This is one of my favorite photos from Saturday's swim meet. My husband looked at it and said, "Umm, why? It's probably the [blah, blah] relay." Well, that's not the point. I just thought it was interesting how everyone is leaning over, looking at the water, but all you can see of what's happening is a splash. It's the end of a race, yes, hence the folks standing with timers in their hands. Is it boring?

Argh, the son's progress reports are terrible. I'm going to have to cut back on computer time to make sure he's doing his homework. I hate that. But, I still need to work on brevity, obviously.

Off to chew out the son,

Bookfool, apparently not the perfect parent


  1. Hi Nancy
    My book came in the mail today!
    Thank you

  2. Hey Brittanie,

    Thanks for letting me know it arrived safely! I'd forgotten all about it. I rushed right out to the post office, as soon as the rain stopped. Enjoy! :)

  3. I have been on a bit of a Civil War kick myself--with at least 2 more novel set in that time period to come this year! Sadly, I must admit that I don't think I've ever read any non-fiction about the Civil War. I would like to, although the book you've just described sounds quite intimidating!

  4. No! The photo looks like it is capturing a really intense moment with everyone bent over with their stop-watches out!

  5. Anonymous9:52 PM

    It's because you don't have perfect children. If you kept the receipt, you can return him. :)

    The book sounds pretty good! Ridicule was a weapon of the press? Who knew?

  6. Laura,

    I think The Words of War was probably not the best nonfiction for a totally history stupid person to start out with, but I'm sure it would be great after you get to know the generals and the battles a bit better, if you know anywhere close to as little as I do, or did, rather . . . which probably isn't actually possible. It was challenging for a person new to the Civil War, definitely. In the end, though, I loved it. I learned more than I would have dreamed I could ever learn from one book and an Atlas!

    I have 2 more Civil War books on the stacks, too!


    Oh, good, thanks! I thought it was so interesting and my husband seemed to think it was just another photo. I'll have to post the one he thought was cool, soon.


    I think we lost the receipt during our first flood. Darn. He was not cheap. LOL

    You are such a hoot. Yes, that crazy press. Who'd have thought?

    It's a good book. I wish I'd gone into it with a greater understanding of the characters and places (that's a gigantic understatement, since I knew virtually nothing) but I'm glad I read it. I am hankering to read more, now. And, lucky me, I have two Civil War books on the stacks. I'm assuming I'll come back to The Words of War for a reread, some time down the road.

  7. I'm with Trish. It's a great picture.

    You would've loved my brother-in-law. He was a big Civil War buff and had hundreds of books on the subject! I've got to admit, I feel like I should know more about it so I'll be interested in what you're reading.


  8. CJ,

    Thank you, dear. I feel better, now. :)

    Oh, yes, I would have loved to meet your brother-in-law, chat with him about the generals and peruse his library. Now, I'm really quite anxious to see another reenactment, but ours take place in July, yuck. It's hard to believe people go out there in our heat . . . in woolen uniforms, no less.

    I've got two novels waiting for me, at the moment. One is called Two Brothers - One North, One South by David H. Jones. Can't remember the other title, but I'm looking forward to both!

  9. Turn left! Turn left! Turn left!!!

  10. Nikki,

    I think we're about to find out if hollering at a hurricane works. ;)

  11. Anonymous2:02 PM

    I hope Ike misses you!

  12. Thanks, Bermudaonion!!!

  13. This book sounds like a great one. Annie and I have been studying the Civil War for school, and I've found myself quite fascinated with the subject as well. (And believe me, that doesn't happen with every subject we explore.)

  14. Debi,

    I had no idea what I was missing out on by knowing so little about the Civil War. It's the stories of people involved in the war that make the subject matter rock, in my opinion. Annie can probably handle this book better than I did. LOL

  15. I agree with you that it's the individual stories that make reading about war so much more interesting. I've just had a chance to peek at Bedlam South, and really enjoyed it. It's Civil War fiction at its finest, well researched and historically accurate but still a page turner. (Don't often get that in historical fiction, I find.) If you get a chance to check it out, it's well worth the read.

  16. Thanks for the link, Ruth. I'm just beginning to really enjoy reading anything and everything about the Civil War, so recommendations for novels that maintain historical accuracy are particularly appreciated! I'll check it out right now!! :)


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