The Civil War in Georgia: A New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion edited by John C. Inscoe. University of Georgia Press, 2011. Paper, ISBN: 0820339814. $22.95.
In 1998 leaders of the Georgia Humanities Council and the University of Georgia Press convened a meeting of about a dozen librarians, historians, curators, and other scholars to discuss the feasibility of producing an encyclopedia concerning all things Georgia. The reference tool would cover the full spectrum of the Peach State’s social, economic, natural, and historic heritage. Other states, such as Texas, had produced such works but the resource imagined for Georgia would be different: it would be the first state encyclopedia born digitally. That is, this was to be an online reference source, its contents written, edited, and finally uploaded to the World Wide Web for individuals in Rome, Italy, to access as easily as those in Rome, Georgia. This may not sound like much now, but it was a forward-thinking—even revolutionary—proposition a decade and a half ago. At that time there were only two to three million websites, as opposed to the billions there are today. A few months after that fateful meeting in Atlanta a startup called Google was founded to help people better navigate the information superhighway that was growing exponentially.
The response that spring day was enthusiastic, and over the next several years institutions and repositories opened their holdings to the dozens of historians, college students, and independent scholars who had begun researching and writing articles for the project. After much work The New Georgia Encyclopedia went online February 12, 2004, to justified applause. Project organizers envisioned the NGE to be an online apparatus, though they also believed select material could be published in traditional print format. In 2007 the University of Georgia Press, in cooperation with its partners at the Georgia Humanities Council and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, published a literary companion of material culled from the online encyclopedia. Now, timed to coordinate with the sesquicentennial, they have released The Civil War in Georgia: A New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion. A better title might have been Georgia in the Civil War, because the book does such a fine job placing the state in the broader context of the conflict.
From the moment Eli Whitney refined his cotton gin on a Savannah plantation in 1793, Georgia played an outsized role in the sectional crisis, the war itself, and our interpretations—and misinterpretations—of it through to the present day. The fire-eating Senator Robert Toombs was from the state; as was his colleague, the initially moderate Senator Alexander Stephens, who would of course become Vice President of the Confederacy. The Confederate capture and eventual loss of Fort Pulaski, the Battle of Chickamauga, the Andersonville Prison scandal, the Capture of Atlanta, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and the eventual arrest of President Jefferson Davis in May 1865 near Irwinville are just some of the events that took place in the state during the war. The Ku Klux Klan revived itself at Georgia’s Stone Mountain in 1915, and the images of Robert E. Lee, President Davis, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson later carved into the mountain’s side would become some of the most potent symbols of the Lost Cause. The Georgian Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind (1936) and its film adaptation (1939) did much to codify the moonlight and magnolias version of the antebellum South that persists in certain places even in the twenty-first century.
The most difficult task in a project such as this is maintaining a consistent voice. Eight hundred writers have so far written 2,500 articles for the NGE. The Civil War in Georgia contains entries from over sixty of these contributors. That the text is so seamless is a tribute to the strong hand of project editor John C. Inscoe, Professor of History at the University of Georgia and onetime editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly. More than a collection of encyclopedia entries, the book is divided into three sections—Prelude to War, The War Years, The War’s Legacy—that add up to a narrative whole. The introduction states that the book reflects not only “traditional military examinations of the war but also the significant expansion of Civil War studies since the centennial.” The battles are here, but in addition one will find information about womens’ actions and attitudes about war and secession, Southern Unionism, a meditation on the civic religion of the Lost Cause, and the role of African Americans in the lead-up to the war, the conflict itself, and its aftermath.
The book focuses much attention on the war as remembered by Georgians, and Americans in general, in the twentieth century. The passage on the Civil War centennial breaks down the state’s commemoration activities year-by-year. Who knew that in the summer and fall of 1963 Chickamauga National Battlefield Park marked the 100th anniversary of that engagement with a series of “state days” commemorating each northern and southern state whose troops fought in the battle individually over a period of days? Unfortunately the book does not delve deeper into why organizers chose to mark the battle this way. One gets a whiff of states’ rights belligerence coming just a few months after another Georgian, Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the March on Washington. There is a surprisingly charitable analysis of Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Deriding the novel has become almost mandatory in certain circles in recent decades. Though calling the work of fiction “flawed” and “uneven” and acknowledging the racism that permeates the book almost without thought, contributor Hubert H. McAlexander also notes the book’s strong points and explains why readers even today are still drawn to the story.
All entries in The Civil War in Georgia are signed by their contributors. There is also a selected bibliography for those who wish to study further. By definition a reference book such as this is not an exhaustive analysis of its subject, and the The Civil War in Georgia does not try to be. Those looking for a sophisticated, concise overview of Georgia’s role in the American Civil War, however, would do well to begin here.
Keith Muchowski is a Librarian at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, New York, and a blogger at thestrawfoot.com.