I loved studying history in college and nothing caused me more pleasure then learning from and about primary sources. There is something about reading a handwritten letter from someone long dead or holding (with gloves!) an item of importance that was owned and cared for that can not be described. You simply have to experience it for yourself.
However, most lay historians and popular history books focus on secondary sources, aka other history books. Other then autobiographies or diaries, there was no good way for the average person to connect to or even see these priceless artifacts...until some brilliant person came up with these History of ______ in X objects. I don't know for sure who that person is but bless them. Now objects and papers are available at everyone's fingertips as well as information about them and help with the ability to interpret them. Not everyone will know what an object even is much less what it's uses were, how much it might cost, and was it a luxury or necessity. The objects should be carefully chosen materials that will aid in telling the larger story of the text.
All of this Holzer does and more. The objects, which range from paintings to George Templeton Strong's diary and more, are well chosen and move you through the conflict chronologically. Most of the choices do have a New York city if not state connection but all the objects can also be connected to the wider story along with the personal ones surrounding the artifact. And New York City experienced some unique events that are telling of national concerns, such as the New York Draft Riots and fairs for the Sanitary Commission. The pictures of the objects - letters, paintings, officer's footlocker, etc. - are superbly done, with detail retained to the point where I could attempt to translate the handwriting into words, something I've missed desperately from college. A magnifying glass would have helped at times, but it was fairly workable. In at least one case, this is the first time an object has debuted. There is literally something for every reader in this book, whether you know a lot about the subject or only have basic knowledge.
Holzer's writing is essential in all this. There are 50 objects (more actually in some chapters, so bonus!), each it's own chapter, so there is not room to write a huge amount on each. They ran generally to 6ish pages, more when the topic needed further discussion or more often when it was a painting that took up two pages. IN this short space, Holzer has to not only introduce the object but: often explain what it is and what it meant to the society, etc. of the time, it's history, who owned it/made it, how they connect to usually New York city or state, and then how it's connected to the Civil War itself. All of this he does brilliantly while also making the information accessible for readers with a variety of knowledge on the subject. The writing is concise, informative, easy to read, has great depth, and a sense of humor that pops up at times. I can't wait to try more of his writings, as this was beyond anything I'd expected.
While this book is accessible to most readers, I would suggest at least a passing knowledge of the Civil War. I think just watching Ken Burns' great documentary The Civil War would be plenty to give the needed working knowledge.
Speaking of Burn's work, this book is great to read with its soundtrack playing as well as Tennessee Ernie Ford's Songs of the Civil War. I never have soundtracks for books, but these were perfect for listening while reading this book. Also, when re-watching The Civil War after reading this, I noticed something. In the documentary, a picture is shown while the narrator discusses both sides gathering volunteers for the coming conflict. In this book, however, I discovered tat it was a photo taken of troops marching not off to war but in Lincoln's funeral procession in New York City. ...A good picture but knowing the provenance did change my view of its use in the show a bit!
This is a history book for anyone. Whether you read tons of historical works or you haven't really picked up something like this since school, you will learn something from this book and enjoy yourself while doing so. The objects are beautifully pictured and the text is well written. One of the better ways to learn history is from primary sources and there are few ways that are more fun.