Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review--The Civil War in Color

Guntzelman, John C. The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States. Sterling Publishing, New York, NY. Color and B/W photos, index, bibliography. ISBN 9781402790812, $35.

For perhaps the most hard-core out there the colorizing of Civil War photos would be considered blasphemy. In many ways I can see this viewpoint. The famous photo of Lincoln and McClellan at Sharpsburg or the dead body on the embalming table of Dr. Richard Burr, or the dead Confederate at Devil's Den in Gettysburg and countless others are burned into the minds of students of the war everywhere. These black and white images are the war in many ways much as video shot from planes or even warheads help define modern warfare today.

When you first thumb through this large coffee table sized book it is easy to think you are viewing a group of reenactors. We all know there was no color photography in the 1860's. Then you see a photo you recognize and you wonder what this is all about. What author John C. Guntzelman has done however is truly revolutionary.  

Before thinking that this is just a slap-dash job and colors applied randomly it is crucial to understand that much research went into this book. Guntzelman has studied the era and the writings of the war to determine best what colors are appropriate. Research was done on individual soldiers where appropriate and on battlefields as well with the result being what appears to be as accurate a "modern" view as we are likely to see of the war. Even with this research some latitude was available particularly in the area of civilian clothing.

The varied subject matter helps show the importance of this work. Chapters include fellow citizens, slaves, contrabands and freemen, soldiers & civilians, war machines, destruction, Lincoln, and casualties. By choosing this wide array of subject the author helps keep the book fresh as you go through it. Each photo includes a descriptive paragraph or two including information on the physical photo if known. The photos themselves are so interesting however that you might find yourself skipping the text portion to see what is next.

My only gripe, and it is really a small one, is that I would have liked to have seen the original black & white photo along side the newly colorized one for comparison. By doing this it would have allowed viewers an immediate way to see the impact of what had been accomplished. Of course in doing so we would not be treated to as many images that are included in the book. This becomes a toss up and we are certainly no less better off for the book being done as it is.

With the short attention span world we live in today many younger people will not have interest in exploring a large heavy tome with a bunch of old crusty looking black and white photos. This beautiful hardcover with bright images may be a different case though. For those with a passing interest this could be a trigger to bring them further in to the study of the Civil War. For those already caught up in the history of the war this is certainly one of those "must have" books. Overall it really is that good!

Thanks to Sterling Publishing for providing a complimentary review copy.

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