The Civil War in 50 Objects: An Interview with Harold Holzer

Harold Holzer’s new book “The Civil War in 50 Objects” tells the story of Civil War by examining 50 objects in the collections of the New-York Historical Society. Holzer, a renowned Lincoln scholar, is also the Senior Vice President for Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society. We recently interviewed Holzer over email about his new book:

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Tell us a bit about the genesis of this book:

The idea for the book came to me from the New-York Historical Society, where I serve as Roger Hertog Fellow.  President and CEO Louise Mirrer asked if I would be interested--the answer was an immediate “probably”--and Louise then invited me to come to the museum on Central Park West and have a look at the original objects themselves.  It was absolutely the best behind-the-scenes museum tour I’ve ever taken--and from that moment it was an enthusiastic “yes.”  I was lucky to have been asked; this was a privilege, not just an opportunity.

Of the 50 objects profiled in the book, do you have a particular favorite?

It’s difficult to choose a favorite, but because I’ve spent so many years writing about Lincoln, I think the discovery of an unknown handwritten Lincoln piece was pretty sensational for me--in this case a little memo he scribbled one day in the War Department telegraph office assessing how many electoral votes he might be able to amass on Election Day 1864--a kind of desperate “path to victory” chart written at the low point of his campaign for re-election--which by the way calculated that at best he would win a second term by only a couple of electoral votes.  How extraordinary to picture him there, maybe during a lull between telegrams from the battlefront, wondering whether he--the Union commander-in-chief--would be given another four years to finish the work of saving the Union and destroying slavery.  I think another “favorite”--an odd word for it because it’s so horrifying--is a manacle once used to restrain a slave child.  It’s a painful reminder that behind the bravado of secession, there was a determination to preserve a sickeningly cruel institution.

I’m sure it was hard to limit this book to 50 objects.  Any “deleted scenes” we could restore in this interview?  Are there a couple of objects you would have really liked to include but had to cut?

I think we really got the major highlights included.  Is there enough for a second book? Absolutely--the Historical Society owns a million or so pieces devoted to the Civil War--but no one who buys “50 Objects” should think we left any icons in the files.

You write in the preface of the “heroic survival” of some of these pieces. Was there any particularly dramatic story of survival here?  Did any of the objects survive against all odds?

I am amazed, speaking from a purely preservation point of view, that a complete Zouave military uniform could survive intact under any circumstances, and with all its vivid reds and blues as sparkling as when its brave owner wore it at Antietam--what a target he must have been in that outfit!  The piece that might easily have gotten away from the collection, I suppose, was the half-model of the USS Monitor that its builder owned--more avaricious descendants might have sold this icon at a profit.  Same for the signed Appomattox surrender terms, a copy owned by Col. Ely Parker, an American Indian who served on Grant’s staff.  Parker’s widow sent it elsewhere, but it eventually made its way to the N-YHS--a real treasure.  Just think of it: this is the guy with whom Lee shook hands after he’d surrendered his army--but glared at because, no doubt, it crashed his entire world down to see a person of color on the winning side.  Lee said to him, “I’m glad there’s at least one real American here.”  To which Parker gutsily shot back: “General, today we’re all Americans.”

How about the actually missing objects... Is there a Civil War object that you know existed during the War, but has since disappeared, that you would love the NYHS to get its hands on?

Well, for all Lincoln enthusiasts, it’s the long-lost letter to the widow Lydia Bixby, offering condolences for the loss of five sons fighting for the Union.  As it turned out, some of her sons had survived, Mrs. Bixby was an anti-Lincoln Democrat, and the letter may have been drafted and written out by the president’s secretary John Hay.  Until; we find the original., we won’t know for sure.  But maybe Mrs. Bixby threw it into the fire!

I really like the idea of telling history through surviving material objects. Do you think this approach would work well for other areas of history?  Or is the Civil War uniquely situated to be interpreted in this way?

I actually think the strategy worked before our book appeared--with the fine “History of the World in 100 Objects” from the British Museum and its great director Neil Macgregor--and in a new history of America from the Smithsonian.  Objects tell the story so well--in part because people treasured them so--and of course as long as these projects give historians an opportunity comment, what better way to tell our collective story?

Are you a collector of material objects yourself?  If so, what do you collect?

I actually started out collecting Lincoln engravings and lithographs more than 40 years ago.  I never kept up with it, but I keep some on my walls and they were the starting point of my writing--they interested me so much I started researching their origins, the artists who produced them, and the political and commercial circumstances that inspired them, so I guess, for me, “objects” were a way into the field, rather than academe.  Today I think my most treasured pieces are two modern works that I keep in my office--a breathtakingly beautiful new Lincoln sculpture by a young New York artist named Frank Porcu--which had a nice exhibit at the New-York Historical Society earlier this year--and a magnificent watercolor of Lincoln by a New Yorker who is an institution in his own right--an artist in several creative genres--the great Tony Bennett.

You can purchase Holzer’s book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.
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