Published in 2013 in honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, The Yellowhammer War is a collection of essays broadly addressing Alabama’s experience immediately prior, during, and after our nation’s most cataclysmic event. It features serious, cutting edge scholarship and gives the reader a sense of the broad contours of the major issues of the time period and insight into several sidelight events and trends. For most readers, however, the inadvertently deceptive title and inherent lack of cohesion around any central themes will leave them still hoping for a comprehensive account of one of the state’s defining eras.
Although the book is definitely useful as a reference source and will surely have some appeal to a broad readership, it has some severe limitations regarding use by the general public. It is not a narrative history of any particular themes and in truth barely discusses any fighting in the state of Alabama at all. True, there are multiple avenues of inquiry into the war era outside of the battlefield that need to be explored and this one admirably does so, but for a book of this purported scope to have only one of fourteen essays focus on the actual military conflict within the borders of the state (another focuses on a battle in Virginia in which Alabamians figured prominently) is curious if not negligent. In addition, several of the essays focus on topics so narrowly defined—reactions to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the connection between Reconstruction in Perry County and the Civil Rights Movement, for example—that coming away with a clear picture of how the war impacted Alabama in the larger sense will be difficult for most. We are all familiar with the maxim about not judging a book by its cover, but the stunning cover image of the flag of Rucker’s Brigade of the Seventh Alabama Cavalry and its very title—alluding to an early-war Alabama Confederate unit mocked by their peers for their gaudy yellow-trimmed uniforms which eventually gave the state its nickname—certainly communicate something a little different from what the book actually contains.
This criticism in structure and marketing aside, it must be acknowledged that most of the essays are thoroughly researched and truly enlightening. In the pages of the book readers learn about isolated episodes in the social, cultural, and political life of the state during the era, perhaps none more informative than Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins’ reflection on the way Reconstruction has been remembered, or rather, misremembered, in the state for generations and Jason Battles’ overview of the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the postwar years. In summary the essays are thorough probes into individual topics, some with direct relevance to the state as a whole, others re-analyzing already-familiar information, and still others shedding light on very specific events and populations that have not received much attention previously. They collectively add a lot to our knowledge of Alabama’s war years even if they do not attempt to address all of its major issues; the experience of slaves, the impact on the economy, the depth of support of secession and the degree to which Unionist sentiment prevailed in areas of the state all come to mind.
Such is the nature of collections of essays in book form, I suppose. They inherently are hodge-podge groupings that only broadly address an era or event. So, buyer beware and make sure you know what you are in for with this volume. The Yellowhammer War is a good book and surely points the way towards further inquiry into the Civil War era by the next generation of historians, but I doubt most lay readers will feel they have a thorough understanding of the war and Reconstruction in Alabama after perusing its pages. Alabama still awaits a grand narrative of its Civil War years.