Book Review: Civil War Battlefields Then And Now

Civil War Battlefields Then And Now, by James Campi, Jr.

This particular book was part of my mother’s birthday present to me, as books are in general a popular and easy to obtain gift. In terms of its contents and focus, the book is straightforward, with most of its pages filled with photographs and the text serving a subsidiary explanatory role, but one that is helpful in providing context. Each location, as best as possible, that is shown in this book from the time of the Civil War is shown in its modern appearance as well, which can lead to a bit of a melancholy reflection, given that some of the cites (Nashville and Atlanta come in particularly harshly here) shown have not done a very good job at preserving the battlefields in their area, and even Petersburg failed to preserve Fort Malone and its counterpart, which have been completely obliterated by putting up a parking lot. To be sure, the photographic history of the Civil War, which was the first war in which the carnage of death in photorealism was seen by ordinary people, is a grim history, but it is sad to see such important sites in history entirely obliterated by people resolved to forget their past rather than learn from it.

In terms of the contents of this book, there are a lot of questions that one can have about selection bias. For one, although the sites are organized chronologically, they are not organized according to campaigns, and so it is left to the text to give a skeleton outline of the plans and goals of the generals involved in these locations, and in the background knowledge of the reader in remembering what battlefields fit together. Additionally, it would appear as if the photographers themselves had a marked East Coast bias, which accounts for the fact that there are many photos for battles in the Eastern theater, including relatively minor affairs like the Battle of Williamsburg and Cedar Mountain, only a few photos of the Western front including Vicksburg, Stones River, and a few of the battles of the Atlanta campaign like Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, the battles around Atlanta, and Altoona, and Franklin and Nashville. There are no pictures for battlefields of immense importance in the Trans-Mississippi theater, like Pea Ridge, Glorietta, or Westport, or even Shiloh. It was a bit unusual that there were no photographs shown of the vitally important valley campaigns of 1862 and 1864. This sort of selection bias means that this book reinforces the tendency of people to remember the big battles and generals in the East, the famous battles at the end of the war, and largely neglects anything else in the West.

While this was not a surprising area of selection bias, the photographs themselves have another more surprising aspect of selection bias. For one, there are comparatively few pictures of landscapes, and a lot of pictures of buildings, like churches and houses, which only had minor and tangential involvement in the various battles. Few of the shots were of landscapes, unless there happened to be a bridge or a sunken road or a stone wall or a fortress on it, which indicates a comparative lack of interest in landscape photography at the time. Only a few of the shots, including various ones of Antietam and Gettysburg, showed photos of the dead bodies left behind after battle, in at least one case being the subject of a fraudulent transportation of a dead body to put it in a more dramatic location for the photo rather than capturing the situation realistically. In addition, there are a lot of photos of parades and monuments, far out of proportion to their actual importance in the Civil War, but probably chosen because of availability. Despite these flaws, and the rather superficial treatment that photography during the Civil War is given in this book, it is nevertheless an intriguing book for those who want to see more photographs and be able to make a comparison between past and present, and these are worthwhile aims.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: Civil War Battlefields Then And Now

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