Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book review: 'Strange And Obscure Stories'

Suggested list price $14.95, but cheaper here.
Full disclosure: I attended college with the author of "Strange And Obscure Stories of the Civil War"  (Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.) In fact, if memory serves me correctly, Tim Rowland and I snoozed through at least a couple Journalism 101 classes at West Virginia University back in the days immediately after the Civil War ended. The good news: One of us turned out OK.

Rowland, a humorist and a columnist for several newspapers, has turned out a gem of a book on the Civil War. It's not focused on blood and guts (although there's some of that), Lee's tactics at Gettysburg, why the Emancipation Proclamation was a really good thing or who turned whose right flank when. Instead, Rowland has mined the dusty archives of the Internet (and a library or two) for tales that have been overlooked by the Shelby Footes, Bruce Cattons and James McPhersons.

Weird, bizarre, obscure -- it's all packed into this 203-page stocking stuffer for the Civil War buff. But this book, as Rowland notes, isn't just a bunch of  "fun facts." With a good dose of humor and wittiness, Rowland weaves together tales that we can relate to today.

Tim Rowland
"My first fear was that there wouldn't be enough material for a book on irony and wit," the author writes. "A couple months into the project, my fear was that that there was no room for it all. So many aspects of this war were so damn strange."

Rowland uncovered a whole bunch of strangeness. And so here's my chance to write two words that I've never used before ...

To wit:
  • The story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, one of perhaps 1,000 women who disguised herself as a man and served during the war. 'Dropping one's pants," Rowland writes, "was not a part of army entrance exams in a war that needed every warm body it could get." Edmonds -- a "complicated girl, according to the author -- made a major contribution to the Union effort. (And, yes, there's a photo of Edmonds in the book.)
  • It was not a good war to be a horse, the backbone of the armies. The average Civil War horse lived from four to eight months, Rowland writes, and more of these animals died (1 million) than men (618,000) during the rebellion.  Horses were often popular targets during battle, and the sight of these dead and dying animals, their entrails hanging out, had a profound effect on some soldiers.
  • It was not a good war to be a horse.
    (Library of Congress collection)
  • Joe Blow Civil War buff knows all about how Dan Sickles screwed up royally at Gettysburg, where the colorful and incompetent Union general had part of his leg blown off. (By the way, you can visit it here.) But I had no clue Sickles once introduced a hooker to English royalty. He was one wacky man. Yes, you'll enjoy Chapter 9.
  • Only recently did I come across accounts of  Confederate artillery men stuffing railroad iron into cannons and firing away at Antietam. (Imagine being the target of one of those flying chunks of metal.) Rowland included that nugget  in an 11-page chapter on weapons technology. An aficionado of all things that go bang, I could have read 10 more pages. But that's just a quibble.
For 15 bucks (or cheaper here and here), you'll get a book you can digest in one sitting or skim and not feel guilty. Unlike that long-ago J-school class, this book is no snoozer.

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