A year does not pass before I am asked what books, other than the Bible, most influenced me in my early years. Another interesting question I also am called upon to answer, especially at this time of year — what was my favorite Christmas present? My family always celebrated Christmas and it was certainly a highlight of the year for me and my siblings. The answer to both questions above happily intersected on December 25th, 1962. It was on that day, after I had recently turned ten years old, I received under the tree The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War.
The Centennial commemoration of the War Between the States was in its second year. I, as a ten year old, had gotten a “whiff of the powder” in second grade when a classmate showed me some postcards he had gotten from his grandmother who lived near Gettysburg. My first exposure to the existence of the war had come a year earlier when my grandfather showed me a daguerreotype image of one of my ancestors in his uniform, taken in 1864. I read a few age-appropriate books on the Civil War for a couple years, played army, wore kepis, and began collecting toy soldiers; I also tried to persuade my friends to wear gray instead of blue (still do). But after getting the American Heritage book for Christmas, I was hooked for the rest of my life on the study of history, especially Civil War history. I have not sought a cure.
The book fell under the editorship of Richard Ketchum who is best known for writing good books on the War for Independence — Saratoga, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton — writing till he died in 2012 at the age of eighty nine. The actual narrative text of the American Heritage book came from the pen of Bruce Catton, who became the best-selling author of Civil War books of the 1950s and 60s. Of course now I know about his effusive Northern biases with which I occasionally take issue, but his writing style, as a professional journalist, at times took my breath away and seized my imagination. The real clinchers for me, however, were the illustrations and maps. I scoured every page till I could identify every image, many of which have reappeared over the years in other media contexts. The original photos, political cartoons, broadsides, and paintings suffused the text with a sense of the reality of the past. The colorful maps of the battles, from a bird’s eye perspective, brought about my Christmas, 1963 collection of toy soldiers (ever after known as “the Civil War Set”), arranged in similar formation on the bedroom floor.
Why bore you with these reminiscences? Just this — you never know when providence will cause a book to so animate your consciousness and desires so as to define the direction of your life and lead to your future calling. Some pastors are called to Gospel ministry through the reading of the Bible. Novelists and writers of various kinds have been inspired at a young age by a book they read, motivating them to become literary men or women. Most historians can name the book that fired their imagination and desire. Not every calling begins this way, but some do. The books we put in the hands of young people really can have an impact for the rest of their lives, sometimes from an early age, some not till they are in college. I know of certain deplorable and anti-Christian books, that I will not name here, that have led young people into lifelong writers of novels and stories of like kind, or have inspired them to abandon the teachings of their family and church to pursue goals unworthy of Christians. I wonder what the five racks of books at Barnes and Noble, labeled “teenage paranormal romance,” are inspiring today’s teenagers to become? I am glad my parents had already taught me that “whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God,” before they wrote “to Billy, from Mommy and Daddy, on December 25th, 1962.”
26 December, 2013