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Reviewed by Joel R. Dennstedt for Readers' Favorite
Meticulously researched and comprehensively annotated, this volume of neglected Americana history, The Civil War Soldiers’ Orphan Schools of Pennsylvania 1864-1899, heavily illustrated with fascinating photographs, drawings, and period documents, is particularly well-attended to by its author Dr. O. David Gold. In a somewhat disingenuous introduction to the subject of the orphan schools’ origins and their later functions, Dr. Gold first lauds the governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Gregg Curtin, for his role as Father of the Soldiers’ Orphan Schools, and whose interest supposedly came about because of a chance meeting on Thanksgiving when two orphaned children came begging him for food. Everyone involved with these institutions - intended to care for children made orphans by a soldier’s death or incapacitation - painted a pleasant portrait of the schools, even if their justifications also painted the children’s parents as brutes and the children as a social menace.
Digging deeper into his subject, Dr. Gold removes layer after layer of contemporary opinion to reveal a more sinister, disturbing, and certainly more accurately complex depiction of these supposedly safe havens for the children, beginning with a questionably unethical financial motivation for their existence, and certainly a later ruthless and greedy syndicate co-option of their operation, not to mention the intrinsic political graft and manipulation attending the continuance of their initial charters.
Dr. O. David Gold does a masterful job in The Civil War Soldiers’ Orphan Schools of Pennsylvania 1864-1899 of parsing through conflicting historical evidence in order to tell a balanced story that bears examination for its relevance today. What begins as an uncontested, popular issue of the heart often becomes distorted by the politics of self-interest, the stubbornness of inertia, and even the simple but profoundly unexpected flukes of history. Dr. Gold decisively covers each in this fascinating tale of a warm-hearted promise gone deathly cold.