The Library of Congress Civil War desk reference /
Margaret E. Wagner, Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, editors ; foreword by James M. McPherson.
New York : Simon & Schuster, c2002.
xxv, 949 p. : ill., maps.
More Details
added author
New York : Simon & Schuster, c2002.
general note
"A Grand Central Press book."
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


The Civil War was the most dramatic, violent, and fateful experience in American history. At least 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in that war -- 2 percent of the American population at the time. If 2 percent of the American people were to be killed in a war fought in the early twenty-first century, the number of American war dead would be 5.5 million. An unknown number of civilians also died in the Civil War -- from disease or hunger or exposure brought on by the disruption and destruction of the war in the South. More Americans were killed or died in this war than in all of the other wars, combined, that the United States has fought. The number of casualties in one day at the battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) was nearly four times the number of American casualties on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Twice as many people were killed and mortally wounded than were killed by the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Indeed, the number of battle deaths in one day at Antietam exceeded the total battle deaths in all the other wars the United States fought in the nineteenth century: the War of 1812; the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; and the Indian wars.

How did this happen? Why did Americans go to war against each other with a ferocity unmatched in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914? From the beginning of the Republic, the institution of slavery in this boasted land of liberty had divided Americans. By the 1830s, militant abolitionists in the North and equally militant proslavery spokesmen in the South were engaged in a war of words that foreshadowed the war of bullets that would begin a generation later. The annexation of Texas in 1845 and the acquisition of one-half of Mexico in 1848 intensified the debate by layering the issue of the expansion of slavery on top of the argument about its morality where it already existed. Slavery, said Abraham Lincoln on numerous occasions, was an institution "founded on both injustice and bad policy....There CAN be no MORAL RIGHT in the enslaving of one man by another....The monstrous injustice of slavery deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites." Yet, like most Northerners, Lincoln recognized the constitutional legitimacy of slavery in the states where it existed. To prevent this evil from growing larger, however, and to place it on the road to "ultimate extinction" by the hoped-for eventual voluntary action of Southerners themselves, Lincoln -- and the Republican party he helped found in the 1850s -- pledged to prohibit slavery in all the territories before they became states.

In 1860, Lincoln won the presidency on a platform containing such a pledge. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," Lincoln had said two years earlier. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." Lincoln looked forward to the time, in what he hoped would be the not-distant future, when it would become all free. Now he was president-elect. For the first time in more than a generation, the South had lost effective control of the national government. Southerners saw the handwriting on the wall. The North had a substantial and growing majority of the American population. So long as slavery remained a divisive issue -- so long as the United States remained a house divided -- the antislavery Republican party would probably control the national government. And most Southerners believed that the "Black Republicans" -- as they contemptuously labeled the party of Lincoln -- would enact policies that would indeed place slavery on the road to "ultimate extinction."

Fearing such a consequence if they remained in the Union, the seven cotton states of the Deep South seceded, one after another, during the winter of 1860-1861. Several other slave states teetered on the edge of secession. Before Lincoln took office in March 1861, the seven seceded states formed the Confederate States of America. They took over almost all of the Federal property within their borders, with the conspicuous exception of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Confederate guns opened fire on the fort on April 12, 1861, and forced its capitulation a day later. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress an "insurrection." Four more slave states seceded.

These events transformed the principal issue of the sectional conflict from the future of slavery to the survival of the United States as one nation. Lincoln and most of the Northern people refused to accept the legitimacy of secession. "The central idea pervading this struggle," said Lincoln in May 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose." Four years later, looking back over the bloody chasm of war, Lincoln said, in his Second Inaugural Address, that one side in the controversy of 1861 "would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."

What was accomplished by the terrible carnage and destruction of the Civil War? Northern victory in 1865 resolved two fundamental, festering problems left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789. First was the question of whether the United States would survive as a republic and as a nation. Could this fragile experiment in republican government endure in a world bestrode by kings, queens, emperors, czars, and dictators? Americans were painfully aware that most republics throughout history had been overthrown from without or had collapsed from within. Some Americans still alive in 1861 had seen French republics succumb twice to emperors and once to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Republican governments in Latin America seemed to come and go with bewildering frequency. Would the United States suffer the same fate? Many Americans feared so; many European monarchists and aristocrats hoped so; disunion in 1861 seemed to confirm these fears and fulfill these hopes. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg in 1863, the Civil War was the great test of whether a republic with a government of, by, and for the people would endure or would perish from the earth. The United States in 1865 passed the test. The Civil War preserved the Republic as one nation, indivisible. Since 1865, no state or region has seriously threatened to secede.

The other problem left unresolved by the Revolution and the Constitution was slavery. Founded on a declaration that all people are endowed with the unalienable right of liberty, the United States became the largest slave-holding country in the world, with 4 million slaves -- one-eighth of the population -- in 1861. Over the next four years, the war to preserve the Union from destruction by a rebellion undertaken to defend slavery became, inexorably, a war to destroy slavery in order to save the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution made the United States truly a land of the free.

Little wonder that the Civil War had a profound impact that has echoed down the generations and remains undiminished today. That impact helps explain why at least 50,000 books and pamphlets (some estimates go as high as 70,000) on the Civil War have been published since the 1860s. Most of these are in the Library of Congress, along with thousands of unpublished letters, diaries, and other documents that make this depository an unparalleled resource for studying the war. From these sources, the editors of The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference have compiled a volume that every library, every student of the Civil War --indeed, everyone with an interest in the American past -- will find indispensable.

Several reference works on the Civil War are in print. But this one is unique in format and contains material unavailable in any other. Instead of alphabetical entries, The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference is organized topically by chapters. It can, therefore, be read as a narrative and thematic history of the war. At the same time, a reader interested in a specific item (a battle or information on a political activist) can go to the index or to the detailed subheadings in the table of contents, or to cross-references within the articles, to find, quickly and easily, the information he or she is seeking. The detailed time lines of important events in the opening chapter and in several other chapters are a unique feature of great value. Chapter 2 on the antebellum period and Chapter 11 on the Reconstruction era are also novel features that place the war in its broader context, without which the events of 1861-1865 cannot be fully understood.

Another characteristic makes this a special volume: the amount of attention given to important developments that are ignored or receive short shrift in other reference works. A few examples, among many that could be mentioned, are the contributions of topographical engineers and the advances in map-making; logistics and communications, especially via the telegraph and the initiation of military signal corps; developments in surgery and medical care; Civil War photography; and popular contemporary and later literature about the war. Numerous quotations from Civil War participants, both famous and obscure, enrich the text.

The reader should not merely accept my word about the quality of this book. Turn to the table of contents, or the index; look up something you are interested in, and then turn to the pages where it is discussed. You will be impressed. And soon you will be hooked. Your knowledge and understanding of this greatest of American wars will expand and deepen more than you thought possible from a single volume.

James M. McPherson

Copyright © 2002 by The Stonesong Press, Inc., and the Library of Congress

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-10-01:
This work's highly credentialed editors and contributors were able to draw on the vast and rich Civil War resources of the Library of Congress, which include unpublished letters from soldiers and nurses, Union and Confederate maps, speeches by Frederick Douglass, photographs by Matthew Brady, and well over 50,000 published books and pamphlets. The resulting work is not arranged alphabetically; instead, the 13 chapters cover broad topics or themes, including military intelligence, medicine, prisoners of war, wartime politics, the home front, war on the water, battles and battlefields, and weaponry. Additionally, topics appear here that are not usually detailed in overviews of the Civil War, such as antebellum America, the Civil War in literature and the arts, researching the war, preservation, and Reconstruction, giving the actual years of conflict a broader context. Selected sources end each chapter. Although the book can be read as a narrative, the identification and location of specific information can be easily found through the index, the detailed subheadings in the table of contents, or the extensive cross references within the articles. Time lines in the opening chapter and elsewhere guide readers through the era's defining events. The eminently browsable text is profusely illustrated with charts, photographs, maps, drawings, and portraits. As a bonus, leading historian James M. McPherson provides the foreword. This resource is certain to be the definitive one-volume Civil War encyclopedia. Highly recommended for public, high school, and academic libraries. Kathleen M. Conley, Illinois State Univ. Lib., Normal Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-06-24:
For a broader crash course in Civil War history, the Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference offers a lucid summary of political rifts that led up to the war, extensive chapters on battlefields and the home front, state-by-state details about the armies and much more. Edited by LOC writer/editor Margaret E. Wagner, University of Virginia history professor Gary W. Gallagher (Lee and His Army in Confederate History) and University of Tulsa College of Law professor Paul Finkelman (An Imperfect Union), the book also has a chapters on "Civil War in Literature and the Arts" and "Studying the War: Research and Preservation," as well as bibliographies, filmographies and lists of other resources and organizations. (Sept. 13) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Appeared in Choice on 2003-07-01:
An estimated 70,000 books have been published about various aspects of the Civil War since it ended 138 years ago. With the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the war fast approaching and interest in it resurging, hundreds of new books are expected. Existing collections relating to the war (the Library of Congress has the world's most extensive holdings) will be essential to researchers seeking insights into that great event in American history. This desk reference is both a readable summary of the major elements of the war itself, and a critical guide to current research in LC's collections. Overviews include "Civil War Time Line," "Antebellum America," "Wartime Politics," "The War on the Water," "Prisons and Prisoners of War," "Medical Care and Medicine," "The Home Front," and "Reconstruction and the Aftermath of the War." Nonhistory students will benefit from the chapter "The Civil War and the Arts," and serious Civil War researchers will appreciate the chapter "Studying the War: Research and Preservation." This book will serve as a vade mecum for Civil War buffs for years to come. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All collections. R. J. Havlik emeritus, University of Notre Dame
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, June 2002
Library Journal, October 2002
Booklist, January 2003
Reference & Research Book News, May 2003
Choice, July 2003
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