gateway to freedomMore than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America’s history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom in Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

A deeply entrenched institution, slavery lived on legally and commercially even in the northern states that had abolished it after the American Revolution. Slaves could be found in the streets of New York well after abolition, traveling with owners doing business with the city’s major banks, merchants, and manufacturers. New York was also home to the North’s largest free black community, making it a magnet for fugitive slaves seeking refuge. Slave catchers and gangs of kidnappers roamed the city, seizing free blacks, often children, and sending them south to slavery.

To protect fugitives and fight kidnappings, the city’s free blacks worked with white abolitionists to organize the New York Vigilance Committee in 1835. In the 1840s vigilance committees proliferated throughout the North and began collaborating to dispatch fugitive slaves from the upper South, Washington, and Baltimore, through Philadelphia and New York, to Albany, Syracuse, and Canada. These networks of antislavery resistance, centered on New York City, became known as the underground-railroad. Forced to operate in secrecy by hostile laws, courts, and politicians, the city’s underground-railroad agents helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom between 1830 and 1860. Until now, their stories have remained largely unknown, their significance little understood.

Building on fresh evidence – including a detailed record of slave escapes secretly kept by Sydney Howard Gay, one of the key organizers in New York – Foner elevates the underground-railroad from folklore to sweeping history. The story is inspiring – full of memorable characters making their first appearance on the historical stage – and significant – the controversy over fugitive slaves inflamed the sectional crisis of the 1850s. It eventually took a civil war to destroy American slavery, but here at last is the story of the courageous effort to fight slavery by “practical abolition,” person by person, family by family. (description from publisher)

smithsonian civil warSmithsonian Civil War – Inside the National Collection is a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book featuring 150 entries in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. From among tens of thousands of Civil War objects in the Smithsonian’s collections, curators handpicked 550 items and wrote a unique narrative that begins before the war through the Reconstruction period.

The perfect book for history lovers, Smithsonian Civil War combines one-of-a-kind, famous, and previously unseen relics from the war in a truly unique narrative. Smithsonian Civil War takes the reader inside the great collection of Americana housed at twelve national museums and archives and brings historical gems to light. From the National Portrait Gallery come rare early photographs of Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant; from the National Museum of American History, secret messages that remained hidden inside Lincoln’s gold watch for nearly 150 years; from the National Air and Space Museum, futuristic Civil War-era aircraft designs. Thousands of items were evaluated before those of greatest value and significance were selected for inclusion here. Artfully arranged in 150 entries, they offer a unique, panoramic view of the Civil War. (description from publisher)

2011 marks the beginning of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Even though it is 150 years in the past, it remains the pivotal, defining event in American history, an event that people come back to time and again. Alistair Cooke once said that to understand America, you had to study the Civil War. While we’ve always had a lot of books about this popular subject, the Sesquicentennial has spurred the publication of many more. Here’s a selection of some of the newest.

Discovering the Civil War from the National Archives. Photographs, reproductions of handwritten records and personal stories.

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. A sweeping history of America from the 1830s through Reconstruction.

The Union War by Gary Gallagher. Why we fought the Civil War, from the Northern perspective.

The Civil War: the First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Drawn from letters, diaries, speeches, articles and memoirs creates a firsthand accounting of the war.

The Civil War: a Visual History by the Smithsonian Institute. This coffee-table worthy book is packed with photographs and maps drawn from the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of artifacts.