Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews

Walking to Cold Mountain

Carl Zebrowski: Foreword by Ken Burns
Smithmark (April 1999) 64pp
ISBN: 0 7651 1057 1

reviewed by Ann Skea

This is a beautifully produced book of historic photographs and brief snippets of letters, essays and comment. But it is, essentially, a coffee-table book; a book for browsing through and for giving the browser a brief impression of life during the American Civil War.

I wish there were more of Ken Burns' wonderful, poetic telling of the Civil War history in this book. Few can surpass his ability to bring history to life. Take, for example, these line from his Foreword:

At 4.30 A.M., on the fourteenth of April, in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-one, General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard directed his Confederate gunners to open fire on Fort Sumter, at that hour only a dark shape out in the vastness of Charleston Harbour. The Civil War, our Civil War, had begun.

The old-fashioned formality of this language evokes the period as strongly as do the old photographs. But, sadly, Ken Burns writes only the Foreword. Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Robert E. Lee, sundry volunteers, songwriters and others supply brief quotes, but there is little more of substance in the text.

The photographs make the book. And even those who have not read Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (the inspiration for this book), will find images here to enrich their understanding of the lives of ordinary people during the Civil War. Those who have read Frazier's book will appreciate anew the hardships endured by Inman and Ada.

One or two of the photographs are of exceptional interest. The only known post-mortem photograph of Abraham Lincoln, lying-in-state in his coffin, is reproduced here. The negative was destroyed because Edwin Stanton, Secretary of State, thought the picture in poor taste.

There are battlefield pictures, keepsake photos, pictures of those who fought, those who photographed and those who stayed behind. And there is a glimpse of the new industry which photography, and the ability to mass-produce photographic prints, spawned at this time in response to public demand for war pictures.

If you like old photographs, and slim books which look and feel good but do not require too much reading or attention, then this is a handsome book to own.


Previous Piece forums serendipity Next Piece

What did you think?