Soldiers Of The Civil War, by Tim Roche
This particular book is an example of the trend for historians (sometimes even academic historians) to write and consult on books on the Civil War aimed at young readers. To be sure, answering a question like why we fight in a war like the Civil War is by no means a simple question. People fight for a wide variety of reasons–some of them motivated by causes or ideals or principles, some of them motivated by the coercive power of the state or a longing to escape the humdrum nature of ordinary civilian life, and some of them motivated by the social pressure that equates in times of war a placid and peaceful mindset with cowardice and the understandable desire for people to defend their own territory and their own legitimacy, if necessary, by force of arms. To capture such a complex set of motivations in a small book aimed at children is by no means easy, even if children can well understand many of the social pressures and the nature of coercive authority far better than they are often given credit for. It is notable, though, that although this book is part of a “Why We Fought” series, it is not really about the motives of why it is that people fought, at least not mostly.
This particular book of about 50 pages or so is structured in a fashion where the author asks various questions that the reader might have about soldiers in the Civil War and then answers them in a brief fashion, full of illustrations and photographs that try to prompt thinking and observation on the part of the reader. The questions have a chronological order and also include various thematic questions that deal with other aspects of warfare. Here are the questions asked and answered: Why did we fight the Civil War? Who were the leaders? Who were the soldiers in the Civil War? What was life like as a soldier? What was the turning point in the Civil War? What role did the Navy play in the war? What were deserters? Who else fought in the Civil War? Who were the Civil War artists? How did the Civil War end? After these questions, which are answered at least a bit shallowly, because the book’s small size does not allow for answers that are very complex or lengthy, the book then closes with a timeline, glossary, suggestions for further research, and an index.
By the standards of being a children’s book about war, this book is certainly a good one. At the very least it acquaints its readers with some primary sources (war diaries and letters as well as photographs) and gives enough information that interested readers will have enough information to deepen and further their study of the Civil War, should they so choose. The author has a balanced perspective of Union and Confederacy that, if not quite my own perspective, is certainly one that appears well-suited to avoid causing offense to readers regardless of their own commitments and loyalties. There are, of course, many questions that readers may have about the Civil War that the book does not even attempt to answer. One of the more obvious question is: why does the Civil War still matter to us today? This question, of course, involves a thorny dealing with the questions of race and of the place of states and the federal government, and of the limits of tolerance of what is viewed as backwards cultural views in a civil society where majority rule and minority rights sit uncomfortably and uneasily in the same package deal of republican government. These are questions, of course, that adults may thoughtful wrestle with as well, and not only curious children.