Friday, April 13, 2012

Cool Book in the GA Archives

When I took over as the Archivist at Germantown Academy, I inherited a large collection of rare books, most from the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had been donated to the school. One of the oldest books in the collection is a leatherbound first edition of Kettell's History of the Great Rebellion. Most sources I consulted say the text was published in 1866. The title page of our book says 1865 (see below). Either way, we're looking at one of the first efforts to tell the story of the Civil War, from an admittedly biased Union perspective. At 757 pages long, it is very thorough, offering detailed accounts of minor engagements (I found three pages on the fairly minor Battle of Olustee). Many sources are reproduced, including the declaration of secession of each state in the Confederacy.
A map of North Carolina, helping to illustrate the scope of Operation Anaconda. Operational level maps are provided for important campaigns, but battlefield maps are absent.

Kettell's description of the assault of Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts. This was the first page I read after opening the volume at random. Made me want to go watch Glory again. Kettell clearly approves of the anti-slavery cause, but if one reads this book to find evidence to prove or disprove the abolition/states rights argument, one is sure to be disappointed. Kettell seems dismissive of slaveholders in general, pointing out the logical contradictions in the Confederacy's constitution regarding the repatriation of Blacks who were seized on slave ships. However, his Union-based perspective gives him little room to consider southern motives or goals.

Kettell concludes with a sweeping statement of the significance of the American Civil War that might have been lifted from the narration of Ken Burns' documentary:

"The United States at once took its place among the great powers of the world, more than ever the bulwark of freedom, the hope of struggling democracies in the Old World, and the exemplar of progress. That all this was accomplished without years of sorrow and misery such as, it is to be hoped, we may never endure again, it is useless to deny; but in the nobler manhood, the self-sacrificing spirit, and the pure patriotism which the struggle called forth, and above all, perhaps, in the overthrow of the institution of slavery, the war furnished some compensating advantages. The chastening hand of God was heavy upon us, as many a desolated hearth-stone will attest, but in His providence, He permitted us to
'Gain in moral height,
Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world.'"
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