by Beth Cronk, Litchfield head librarian
Did you know that Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day? It was first widely observed 150 years ago, in 1868, as a way to remember the soldiers who had died in the Civil War. The library has a number of recent books about the American Civil War for those who enjoy learning about our history.
The popular new novel Varina is the latest by Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain. Teenage Varina Howell married the much-older widower Jefferson Davis in 1845, never imaging more than a quiet life in Mississippi. With her grandfather involved in politics in the north, her own education in Philadelphia, and the first fifteen years of her marriage spent in Washington, D.C., Varina was conflicted about both the war and slavery, and she was not pleased when her husband became president of the Confederacy. The novel includes her flight south with her children, with Union soldiers in pursuit as the Confederacy fell. After her husband’s death, Varina moved to New York City and became close friends with Julia Grant, Ulysses’ widow. This well-written book asks still-relevant questions about whether Varina was complicit in the things her husband did.
Speaking of Ulysses S. Grant, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow wrote another respected biography in the past year, this one simply titled Grant. From business failures, corrupt staff members, alcoholism, and a resignation from the army in disgrace, to rapid advancement, military and political success, and literary acclaim, Grant’s life swung back and forth between bad and good fortune many times. Chernow makes the case that Grant was one of America’s best but most underappreciated presidents.
Another biography, Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary tells the story of Edwin Stanton, the powerful and controversial man who raised an army for the Union. Lincoln’s right hand man, Stanton supervised the army from his telegraph office. He had thousands of people imprisoned for supposed war crimes, which included things like calling for an armistice. When Lincoln was shot, the former attorney quickly took charge, informing the public, directing General Grant to secure the Capitol, and collecting evidence from the crime scene. Published last year, this was the first biography of Stanton in fifty years, so he isn’t a familiar figure to many of us.
The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is a recent Civil War history. Reviewers say that author Edward L. Ayers deeply researched the material and wrote an engaging narrative with a fresh perspective on the familiar events. This book focuses on the Great Valley on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line: the counties of Augusta, Virginia and Franklin, Pennsylvania. From this vantage point, Ayers examines battles, the destruction of property in war, families who sent soldiers to the front, and the hope and reality of emancipation.
Other classic and recent books about the Civil War are always available at the library. Look under the Dewey Decimal area 973.7 in nonfiction, or do a keyword search for “United States history Civil War fiction” in the catalog to find novels.