Bryjak creates vivid ‘Voices from the Civil War’

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The America Civil War has been chronicled and analyzed so extensively (the SUNY Plattsburgh Feinberg Library, for example, has about 9,000 books related to it) that a writer might be foolhardy to think he can bring new light to the subject. But George Bryjak’s “Voices from the Civil War” does just that.

Mr. Bryjak combines his scholarship and fiction skills in an original structure for this project. Each of the 26 chapters begins with Bryjak’s digest of information related to a specific topic, such as military supplies, the Underground Railroad or Civil War photography.

About the business people who saw the war primarily as a way to make money, Bryjak writes they had sold “the Union Army tens of thousands of uniforms with no buttons and no button holes. Rather than wool, cheaply constructed uniforms were made of sawdust and scraps of material glued and then ironed together. When exposed to rain, they fell apart.”

He reminds us of who were the “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, and most of the passengers: “free blacks, former slaves, whites and some Native Americans. … The vast majority of the UGRR passengers were males in their teens and 20s traveling alone or with another male companion.”

Most readers are familiar with the grisly and melancholy Civil War photographs. Bryjak adds context to those images: “The Civil War was the first major conflict to be extensively photographed, and this relatively new technology greatly enhanced our understanding of that conflict. … There were far fewer Southern photographers, and early in the war, with a lack of developing supplies and money, it was all but impossible for these men to take battlefield photos.”

Depending on a reader’s knowledge of the Civil War, the author’s well-organized and fluidly written research will be a reminder or a new look into an old subject.

The second part of each chapter exhibits Bryjak’s skill at drawing characters and creating individual voices for them. He has 26 individuals speak about the Civil War. There are 13 men and 13 women; 13 are Southerners, 13 are Northerners, eight are African-American. Each character is presented in a first-person profile, as if answering a newspaper reporter’s request, “Tell us your personal story during this war.”

The author offers the time, place, age and complexion of the person speaking. In “Blood Money,” the chapter dealing with unscrupulous businessmen profiting from the war, we read:

“Time: September, 1864

“Place: New York City

“Character: a 23 year-old white female.”

This woman describes her father’s obsession with “buying cheap and selling dear,” but it is her own sad love story that reminds us of the pain the war caused those who stayed home. The woman’s fiance, David, is killed in action, and she fears “my grief for David is pulling me into darkness. During the worst time I have considered joining him.”

A black teenager in Kentucky hoping to cross the Ohio River to freedom is the speaker in the Underground Railroad chapter, while a 36-year-old white photograph tells us his story.

Bryjak creates an insightful and individualized voice for each of his characters. They describe and reflect the facets of the war. The author also provides an excellent summary-type introduction as well as a reading list. Whether you are steeped in the Civil War or just beginning to read about it, George Bryjak’s book deserves your attention.

“Voices from the Civil War” is available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the Community Store in Saranac Lake.

Reviews reflect the individual views of the reviewers, not of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.

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