There are two subtitles for this book: the one printed on the cover (The Amazing, Terrible and Totally True Story of the Civil War) and the one that should have been (Everything your schoolbooks didn’t tell you about the Civil War). Since author Steven Sheinkin was a text book author in a former life, he has the authority to proclaim his book is “History with the good bits put back!”
The two miserable presidents referred to by the title are Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. The judgment of their misery does not refer to their job performance but to their extreme unhappiness. These two presidents are mentioned a couple of times throughout the book, and have a chapter dedicated to them, but they are not the focus. Instead, Sheinkin begins with writing a cogent summary of the causes of the Civil War and then proceeds to provide a chronological review of the years of the Civil War.
Never getting too bogged down in details about any one battle or campaign, Sheinkin is able to keep the action moving while at the same time providing depth through quotes and stories from participants. The chapter dedicated to the soldiers' lives (Johnny Reb vs. Billy Yank) includes a story of Bob McIntosh and his half haircut, the common discussions soldiers had around the campfires (sweethearts and food) and the phenomenon of trading items across the lines between the rank and file soldiers on either side.
There were a few minor errors (Joe Johnston was referred to as Joe Johnson; Chancellorsville was a lodging house, not a town; and John Wilkes Booth was a Marylander, not a Virginian). More importantly, there were a few errors of questionable history. Sheinkin says that after Gettysburg and Vicksburg “the South would never again be strong enough to invade the North.” That was 1863, but then also briefly recounts Jubal Early’s Maryland invasion of 1864 (yet another invasion of the north that occurred after Gettysburg). Recent scholarship has questioned the old story that Gettysburg began over shoes. Unfortunately Sheinkin’s citation is the wonderfully written, but not footnoted Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. It is a great story that highlights the absurdities of the Civil War. Unfortunately, the evidence that it happened is sketchy at best.
Overall, this is a great book for the target age group, but don’t feel bad if the parents enjoy it, too. All age groups can benefit from this fun and quick read that is a great overview of the Civil War.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.