Book Review: Houses Of Civil War America

Houses Of Civil War America:  The Homes of Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Others Who Shaped The Era, by Hugh Howard, original photography by Roger Straus III

As someone who reads a lot about the Civil War [1], I like to read books that are distinctive and that have something unique to offer about the Civil War, and this book definitely qualifies as a distinctive book.  The heart of this book, and what makes it most worthwhile, is the way that text and photograph are combined together to make an account of how people lived during the Civil War.  A reader of this book, particularly when seeing references to the “War Between The States” and the fact that a book like this can be expected to look at the glorious examples of surviving antebellum architecture, would be particularly concerned about there being a strong pro-Southern bias, but this book manages to be open about slavery being at the heart of the Southern resistance to Lincoln’s election and even seeks to show photographs of slave cabins as a way of comparing it to the ostentatious luxury of many southern plantation mansions, and even shows one particularly glaring example of a “folly” found in Natchez when a slaveowning Unionist lost his fortune and eventually a life after trying to build an Italianate mansion in 1860, not the best year to build in the South.  The book is thus far more complete and far more thoughtful than it would first be assumed to be.

The slightly more than 200 pages of this book are divided into three sections that, more or less chronologically, approach the houses of important people in the American Civil War.  The first part, looking at the antebellum time of increased hostilities among our house divided, shows the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a rail stop at Rokeby in Vermont, John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill mansion, Cassius Clay’s White Hall, the Abraham Lincoln house in Springfield, and John Brown’s farm and gravesite in Lake Placid, NY.  The second part of the book, looking at homes during the war years, gives readers a glimpse at the Edmonston-Alston house in Charleston that Beauregard visited in 1861, the Robert E. Lee and Arlington House, “Stonewall” Jackson’s home in Lexington, Virginia, the South Union Shaker Village of Auburn, Kentucky, Haller and Julia Nutt’s house in Longwood, Mary Conrad Weeks Moore’s mansion in New Iberia, Louisiana, President Lincoln’s cottage in Washington DC, otherwise known as the “Soldier’s Home,” the Confederate White House, Horace Greeley’s house in Chappaqua, the Green-Meldrim house that Sherman occupied in Savannah at the end of his march to the sea, the William Henry Seward house in upstate New York that was actually the home of his wife and her family, and the McLean house in Appomattox Court House famous for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia [2].  The third and final section, looking at homes in reconstruction and after, shows Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill home, Clara Barton’s house in Maryland, Ulysses S. Grant’s Cottage in New York, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford, Alexander Stephen’s Liberty Hall in rural Georgia, and Beauvoir in Biloxi, where Jefferson Davis wrote his attempted justification of the lost cause of the Confederacy.  The homes are presented with their architectural histories and with pictures of their outside structure and their interior furnishings and sometimes even their floor plan is shown.  All in all, it is a pleasing read.

This is a really good book at humanizing the figures of the Civil War, who can often take on a certain marble cast in retrospect.  Whether one is looking at Robert E. Lee’s loss of the family mansion, or the struggles of some of the people with depression, or the controversial interracial second marriage of Frederick Douglas or the disrespect that some people had for Abraham Lincoln or William Tecumseh Sherman’s complex character and nature, there is a lot of interest to be found in the stories.  The author’s previous research in Natchez, the place with the highest per capita amount of antebellum millionaires, has clearly done him good in giving him a reason to focus on some of the forgotten and obscure Civil War architecture that is often neglected by other Civil War literature, and this is a book that is sure to please many readers with its ability to place the reader almost back in time, to see buildings inside and out the way they would likely have been during the Civil War, something many of us appreciate being able to see even once in a while.

[1] See, for example:


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: Houses Of Civil War America

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