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Posted on Jun 21, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Words of War – Book Review

By Curt Pangracs

cover.jpgBook Review – The Words of War. Donagh Bracken, Suggested Price: $24.95, ISBN: 1-9339093-2-3. Website: http://www.atlasbooks.com/marktplc/10209.htm

The Words of War, by Donagh Bracken, 2007, is a 328-page hardcover book on the reportage of the American Civil War by a popular newspaper on each side of the conflict. The book includes maps and sketches from the period in black and white.

With The Words of War, author Donagh Bracken attempts to highlight the political influence and emotion that painted the reporting of the same battles from the perspectives of the larger and more popular newspapers from each side of the conflict and how it compared to what history has shown to be “the truth”. How much of what we see in today’s reporting of conflict is shaped in the same manner? This book strives to answer that question and pays homage to the early war correspondents and their influence on current news reporting in general.

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During one of the most turbulent periods in the short history of America, there was a need for people on either side of the conflict to know what was happening. The role of American war correspondent was born, and the passion and political influences are laid bare in the reportage of the respective sides. During this time, newspapers were, for the most part, merely bought and paid for publicity departments for the largest and wealthiest political parties in the region, and the style and flavor of the reportage from the front lines bore this out with blurred lines between the brutal reality of a civil war and the need to satisfy the newspaper’s craving for propaganda and readership.

By taking a number of battles and presenting the actual coverage by the two newspapers – The New York Times reporting for the North and the Charleston Mercury for the South – then contrasting those accounts with what historians have culled, it’s pretty clear how much influence personal politics and emotion had in each account. Starting with the boisterous political ranting by the Mercury on the siege of Fort Sumter, and ending with the somewhat uplifting and hopeful editorial in the Times after the surrender at Appomattox, this book captures wholly the rollercoaster that is armed conflict solely with the words of the reporters.

Being a fairly new “fan” of the American Civil War, I consumed this book rather quickly. I thoroughly enjoyed the contrast between what history says happened during each of the battles addressed, and what the public read about them at the time. My son, who just turned 11, had been studying the Civil War in school and has shown a deep interest in the era, so I decided to let him read the book as well. I’m happy to say that both father and son were satisfied, and the book served as a great conversation-starter during long trips to baseball tournaments. The Words of War will also serve as a kind of undercurrent for our family trip to Manassas, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and Fredericksburg over the summer.

Each chapter in The Words of War is a treatment of a particular battle, and each is prefaced with an author’s commentary. I liked this format, as it gave a contextual premise for the entire chapter. At the end of each chapter is a summary of “What the Historians Say”, allowing the reader ample opportunity for moments of discovery.

There are over 60 sketches, maps, and plates in the book used to help underscore the emotion surrounding the reporting. Though some are blurry and a bit hard to read, they are well-placed and relevant, while not overpowering the book’s style. I also liked the fact that Bracken offers a “glossary” of sorts with terms peculiar to the era.

I can safely say that anyone interested in either the Civil War or war reporting in general will find this book to be a great addition to their collection. It is only the 3rd book on the Civil War in my collection, but if Don Bracken’s book is indicative of the care and joy put into most books on the Civil War, my wife better keep an eye on my credit card account.

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