Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A somber look at Lincoln's time

Recently, I was at a nearby library searching through the audio book section, hoping to find Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Instead, I found an audio book which gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the Civil War I would have never thought possible. The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves by Andrew Ward is a sobering first-hand account through the eyes of hundreds of former slaves.

I normally have a rule: My 30-minute commute to and from work is a transition time and I try to listen to things which will make me smile – Hippie Radio or fun country songs like “Chicken Fried” by the Zak Brown Band.

As I listened to narrator Richard Allen read the accounts from Ward’s book, I did anything but smile.

From the mouths of babes

The book includes the first-hand accounts of scores of former slaves, many who were just children during the Civil War and at the time of emancipation. They paint a vivid picture of the horrors of war, the injustice of servitude and the strength of a people who, by circumstances of their skin color, time in history and environs, were subjected to atrocities the like of which I can’t begin to imagine.

As I listened to the 11 audio tapes (14 hours in all), I was moved by the variety of memories the interviewees had and the color with which Allen relayed them. From stories of plantation life and battlefield scenes to memories of seeing President Lincoln at Richmond in 1865 just before the assassination, this resource sheds new light on the most troubling time in our nation’s history.

Slaves’ War draws upon 1930 Works Progress Administration interviews with those who were just children during the war, as well as other oral history. The end result is a resource which will surely hold a prominent place in the libraries of many Lincoln and Civil War scholars. It’s on my list of must haves.

Hearing is believing
I normally don’t recommend listening to a book before reading it, especially nonfiction, but in this case, I’d do it the same way all over again. Hearing Allen bring the dialect to life and “reading” in chunks seemed to be just what I needed with this book.

Now, I just have to get the printed book to keep on my reference shelf. I’ve already found several quotes I’ll want to use in my future scholarly work. Methinks Andrew Ward’s book will become as much a staple in my Lincoln bibliographies as Herndon’s Informants, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis.

Time for kicking down the cobblestones

As I dig deeper into my Lincoln work, I’m finding my commute time is a great time to learn through audio books like this one. But for now, I think I’ll kick back and listen to some fun vibes. After all this heavy stuff, I think it’s time for some really light and funky sounds like “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Simon and Garfunkel – for a few days, at least.

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