Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book: A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta

Venet, Wendy Hammand. 2014. A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta. New Haven: Yale University Press.

This book provides a history of Atlanta with a focus on the civil war years, but including as well the period of rapid economic growth and development in the years prior to the war and the period of agressive rebuilding following the war. The author is a professor in the history department at Georgia State University.

What distinguishes the book in my eyes is its focus on primary sources: the vast majority of the story builds on contemporary newspapers, diaries, business records, public records, letters and (sometimes at a lag) memoirs. The author does a fine job of weaving these sources togehter with occasional references to secondary sources and more aggregate data into a narrative of pre-war expansion, early war enthusiasm, late war disappointment and dispair, and post-war reconstruction and adjustment to new social realities.

Of course, reliance on primary sources has its issues: literacy was by no means universal at the time, even among non-slaves. Thus, surviving letters and diaries come from a decidedly non-random subset of the population. Similarly, newspaper archives do not survive at random either. The author notes these issues but I would have liked an explicit and extended methodological discussion to complement the narrative, perhaps in an extended appendix so as to allow more casual readers to easily avoid it.

I really enjoyed the book and learned a great deal of a social historical nature about the war and the city. I particularly valued the discussion of how Atlanta coped with the inflow of refugees from union-occupied regions and of wounded soldiers during the latter parts of the war.

Recommended to those interested in the Civil War.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

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