Book Review: Life in Civil War America, by Michael J. Varhola

Prepared by Gena Philibert-Ortega.

"Life in Civil War America," by Michael J. Varhola is about an era that is well represented in the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Books chronicle the years leading up to the conflict and how leaders on both sides reacted. Books that depict the battles, the places and even the food that was available can assist you in learning more about the events and people in America during this time. For genealogists, there are books that can tell you how to research a Civil War soldier, but very few exist that give you a true sense of what life was like during this time period. Varhola's book does just that.

Over 300 pages of content takes the reader from the geography of the United States, to what types of houses people lived in, education, slang, religion entertainment, money, clothing and dry goods, food, technology, the draft, the military and military supplies. Appendices cover Civil War photography, a timeline, songs, bibliographies and resources. This book contains information that can truly help you better understand how your ancestor, both soldier and civilian, would have lived during the Civil War years.

While this book could be used as a reference work, I would recommend reading it from cover to cover or even just the chapters that most interest you. For me, this book also provided a sense of what activities our ancestors engaged in that might have left a paper trail. In Chapter 5, "Religion: What People Believed," benevolent societies are mentioned, including the work of Northern women through the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The writer states "For many women volunteers, involvement with benevolent societies or the activities of groups like the U.S. Sanitary Commission was their first experience with work outside the home." Genealogists should take note and search repositories in the location of their ancestors for records that might detail their own female ancestor's activities.

Word lists found at the end of each chapter will assist the reader in becoming familiar with vocabulary from an earlier time: a helpful addition especially for those reading primary documents that might include unfamiliar words. For those looking for Civil War era periodicals, a list is included of some of the periodicals published during that time period, for both the North and the South, will assist researchers looking for these sources (187). Photographs and illustrations from materials such as period magazines also help to bring the feel of the era to the reader.

Not only is this work a great resource for genealogists and historians but I would also recommend it for those with students studying the Civil War or to even interest them in their own ancestors. It's one thing to explain to someone living in the 21st century about not having enough food to eat, but it's another to point out as does this book, on page 163, that because of shortages and expense in the South people were eating meats not considered foodstuffs then nor now, including rats and crows. During these shortages in the South a turkey could be bought for $50 to $100, and hams were going for $350.

I really enjoyed this book and looked forward to reading it and rereading it. The only disappointment I had was the absence of footnotes or endnotes in the main text. (Maureen A. Taylor's contribution in the appendix does have endnotes). Varhola does list his sources in a bibliography, but for me, it would have been easier to have footnotes in the actual text so that I could see which fact was found in which source. In a book like this, it may have been decided that footnotes would distract from the main body of text.

Varhola's book is a comprehensive look at America during a pivotal time in history. If you are looking to make your genealogy research more interesting to the non-researchers in the family, this is the book you will need to help others understand what it was like to live in America from 1861-1865.

Disclaimer: F+W Media, the publisher of this book is also the publisher of a book I have written. The editor of the above book is also the editor of my book. At no time did any staff member of F+W discuss this publication with me. I purchased my own copy of this book for review.

Life in Civil War America, by Michael J. Varhola. Family Tree Books, 2011.

<< Genealogy Book Reviews

click to view original photo