1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year edited by Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard. Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 0809332469. $32.95.
The year 1863 was pivotal to the American Civil War, and particularly for its most enduring and studied figure, Abraham Lincoln. The president oversaw the transformation of the war’s aims towards a melding of emancipation and reunion, several major military victories, and the one of the clearest statements on not only the war’s purpose, but on the very nature of American government. 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year sees eleven prominent historians of Lincoln and the war examine the tumultuous twelve months that transformed American history.
In his introduction, editor Harold Holzer describes the book as an attempt to look back at various aspects of the year without succumbing to the shortsightedness of those experiencing it. The twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 marked the approximate halfway point of the conflict, though the men and women experiencing it could not have known that. Certainly acknowledged as monumental and important when delivered to the public, few could have realized how prominent the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address would become to many Americans’ understanding of the Civil War.
Much of what is included in the military essays is fairly well known. John Marszalek and Michael Ballard’s essay on the war’s course and William C. Davis’s on Lincoln’s relationship with his generals do not reveal anything particularly new. These mostly serve to provide some useful background on the war’s progress, and greater context for the collections’ other essays. Craig Symonds, writing on the activities of Lincoln and the Union navy, does provide some less common information, and shows the president being far more involved in all aspects of the war’s planning, not merely that of social and army policy. Each provides a brief overview of the events for the calendar year, and otherwise does not reveal any new truth about these trends.
A number of the collection’s other essay cover a variety of topics in 1863, even beyond the scope of Lincoln himself. Edna Greene Medford’s essay on slaves’ response to the Emancipation Proclamation sees the long-ranging effects of the document, even while understanding its legal limitations. That this essay leads off the collection, much as the Proclamation began the year, says much about its importance to what follows. Catherine Clinton examines Lincoln’s home life, centering the First Family’s experience on Lincoln’s private affairs as they related to his relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, and their continued mourning over the death of their son Willie. Barnet Schecter and Frank J. Williams each discuss constitutional and legal issues. Schecter’s essay, which deals more specifically with that year’s draft and the rioting that broke out in New York City, credits Lincoln’s ability to avoid full prosecution of the rioters for calming the situation and preventing further confrontation. Orville Vernon Burton looks at the Gettysburg Address, detailing how it marks a transformation in Lincoln’s thinking and rhetoric during the course of the war. Utilizing visual technology, particularly word clouds, he highlights Lincoln’s rhetorical shifts through the changing frequency of words such as “union” and “nation.” While not particularly dramatic as a conclusion, the visual images do provide an additional emphatic point to Lincoln’s shift and another piece of evidence marking the Gettysburg Address (and to some extent the Emancipation Proclamation) as transformational in understanding the war’s meaning.
Bob Zeller and Harold Holzer provide some of the collection’s most unique perspectives on Lincoln’s year by discussing various public imagery during 1863. Zeller examines wartime photography, transitioning beyond the standard use of photographs by Matthew Brady to other ways in which the army and civil society studied the war using pictures. 1863 saw the use of the first official army photographer, Andrew J. Russell, and one of the first photos taken during battle, capturing the Union bombardment of Charleston. He concludes that the Civil War, due to its chronological place in the history of photography, laid the groundwork for modern photojournalism, and the importance of images in translating events for the public. Holzer’s essay on images of Abraham Lincoln is similarly wide reaching, as it looks at photographs, paintings, and cartoons, all trying to examine the various ways in which the nation viewed its president.
Meant to be taken collectively, 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year tries to capitalize on the 150th anniversary of the war’s midpoint, emphasizing the president’s notable documented addresses. Regular scholars and students of the war will no doubt find interesting facts, and a few new historical tangents to follow regarding the transformation of society during the war. Mostly though, the book will provide greater information to a non-Civil War audience, providing brief scholarly takes on some of the war’s intriguing trends from this significant year.
Keith Altavilla is an Assistant Editor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.