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Civil War Sesquicentennial

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January marks the 150th anniversary of the movement toward the Civil War.  On December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared secession from the Union; in January five states followed suit: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Virginia was not among the first secessioners.  In fact, in an article published in the Richmond Times Dispatch January 2, Katherine Calos writes that "Virginia was actively trying to hold the Union together".

"That may come as a surprise in 2011, when Monument Avenue serves as a reminder that Richmond was the capital of the breakaway Confederate States of America. But 150 years ago, the state voted pro-Union by a 2-to-1 margin when it elected delegates to a secession convention that began deliberations in mid-February."

Virginia delegates continued to oppose secession until April 17, following the fall of Fort Sumter to the Confederates and President Lincoln’s call for volunteers from each state.  Then the vote flipped, 88 for and 55 opposed to secession.  Citizens ratified the vote 5 to 1 on May 23.  At that point, Virginia was admitted to the Confederate States of America and Richmond became the capital.

The road toward secession is the subject of two big exhibits introducing a four-year commemoration of the Civil War. One, "The Struggle to Decide: Virginia’s Secession Crisis", is at the Visitor Center at the State Capitol, a companion to one at the Library of Virginia, and the other, "An American Turning Point: the Civil War in Virginia", opens February 4 at the Virginia Historical Society.  Many other exhibits, re-enactments, scholarly discussions, tours, and living history programs are set to take place during the next four years to memorialize the war that preceded emancipation for slaves and reunion of the nation.

The American Civil War is the subject of well over 60,000 books.  Among the many excellent narratives about the war, Bruce Catton’s books, including Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox, remain readable classics.  Other well-regarded narratives include Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, probably the best one-volume history.  Douglas Southall Freeman’s R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants are definitive biographies. 

Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and slavery is a highly praised examination of Lincoln’s evolving views on race and slavery.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals touts Lincoln’s ability to understand his political competitors and motivate them to apply their abilities to the most difficult task before the nation.  Jay Winik makes clear that the outcome of the Civil War was by no means pre-determined, but came about as a result of a chain of small and unexpected incidents, in his fascinating April 1865: the month that saved America.

Among the best fiction about the Civil War are Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage, the popular epic Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and March by Geraldine Brooks (read in conjunction with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women).

Good books for young readers include Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, March Toward the Thunder by Joseph Bruchac, Girl in Blue, Numbering All the Bones, Come Juneteenth and In My Father’s House by Ann Rinaldi, Hear the Wind Blow and Promises to the Dead by Mary Downing Hahn, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by W. R. Philbrick, Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder, Red Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells, The River Between Us by Richard Peck, and Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen.

For these and many more books about the Civil War, visit us at or call 988-2541

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