Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
13 June 2011
Review by Phillip S. Greenwalt, Montross, VA
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Civil War, 3rd ed.
By Alan Axelrod
New York: Alpha Books, 2011. Pp. xviii, 382. ISBN 978-1-61564-078-2.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 19th Century, Civil War Print Version

Thousands of books have been written about the American Civil War. Where to begin? Alan Axelrod seeks to answer that question in his Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Civil War, which "will not tell you everything you need to know about the Civil War [but] … will tell you all you need to know to get started" (xvi).

Axelrod earned a doctorate in English at the University of Iowa and is currently the president of Ian Samuel Group, a creative services and book packaging firm. He has written several Idiot’s Guides and many other books and articles on American history and military history in particular. In the present volume, he leads the reader from an account of the origins of the Civil War through the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction to reflections on the collective memory and lasting legacy of the conflict. To assist his envisioned audience—novice students of the Civil War—he enhances his text with illustrations, user-friendly symbols, and useful appendices on the relevant vocabulary, personages, locations, and weapons of the war, as well as a succinct bibliography. An added bonus is advice on visiting Civil War sites.

Axelrod gives the beginning student sufficient facts about key historical actors, battles, tactics, and social and political matters to provide a sound general basis from which to engage in more advanced and specific studies of the war. One element of the book will benefit readers on all levels—a chapter titled "Memory" dedicated to tying the past in with the present: "For despite the often ill-tempered pitch and volume of recent divisive political rhetoric, it remains a fact that the unity of the United States as one nation, indivisible, was reaffirmed by the outcome of the Civil War. No wonder that the epic struggle has figured as a subject of continual fascination to millions of Americans" ( 333). In the first section of the chapter, "From Killing Fields to Subdivisions," Axelrod sums up the importance of guidebooks like his, which introduce the Civil War to a new and interested audience, highlighting its deep and abiding place in American history.

No matter how the landscape might change, the Civil War is unlikely ever to fade from our collective memory. Since 1865, more than 65,000 books have been published on the subject. To that add countless movies, television shows, and more than a dozen popular interactive Civil War battle and strategy computer games. Thousands of enthusiasts regularly meet at "Civil War Roundtables" to discuss arcane aspects of the conflict, and an estimated 50,000 more periodically don impeccable reproduction period uniforms and tote reproduction period weapons into reenactments of key Civil War engagements (334).

Axelrod gives a good sense of the enduring fascination of the Civil War as well as of the wide variety of available sources of information, from books and articles to internet resources and the activities of reenactment groups and other organizations.

A significant shortcoming of the book is the omission of a connected narrative in favor of a simple arraying of facts in chronological and, less often, thematic order. To be fair, Axelrod thereby succeeds in creating a reference tool that will help readers begin to navigate the ocean of materials available for the study of the Civil War. One nonetheless misses any semblance of a continuous narrative line, as the book proceeds from one fact to the next. For instance, the section "Seven Days and Another Bull Run" details Gen. John Pope’s takeover of command in Virginia. There immediately follows a section, "Slow March to Freedom," treating the emancipation efforts of the US government in the summer of 1862. The reader is then wrenched back into military matters—the Battle of Second Bull Run (127-29). Axelrod might better have finished dealing with military matters and then moved on to a discussion of political issues. Some contextualizing narrative explaining how different topics relate to each other would have reduced the sense of too abrupt transitions among military and political themes.

Like other installments in the Complete Idiot’s Guide series, this book achieves its aim of providing an accessible, general  introduction to its subject. It takes the reader through the essential themes of the Civil War, from its preliminaries through the horrific four years of hostilities and their aftermath to a consideration of the persistence of the war's legacy in the nation's collection consciousness.

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