As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the amazing cultural and economic changes that followed in its wake, historian Nora Titone’s brilliant new account of the Booth family of actors, “My Thoughts Be Bloody,” proves a perfect starting point.

No observer with a pretence to fact would call the family of the celebrated English-born actor Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) typical or representative of the day. However, as soon as Junius landed in Virginia in 1821 with a star’s reputation and a new wife, they became a part of the American fabric, as would the 10 children the couple soon produced.

The back story and the fact that he left a first wife and child — and married without the courtesy of divorce — spiced the saga, especially after the first Mrs. B. came to the U.S., got a lawyer and issued humiliating public threats.

As Junius became the theatrical toast of the U.S., he sequestered his new family on a plantation and hit the boards especially hard. But the eccentric actor was an alcoholic, and loved to spend his earnings on friends of the moment.

At a tender age, son Edwin (1833-93) was sent on tour as his father’s keeper, a task they both hated but which the boy performed especially well. As Titone so neatly shows, Edwin felt his childhood and education had been stolen. At the same time, he became his father’s understudy and heir to the most successful Victorian franchise of the era.

John Wilkes (1838-65) thirsted for fame and wanted badly to become the next Junius Brutus, but was kept at home and later sent to an expensive school, where he spent his time on horses and later women. Dark and handsome, he never studied acting, although he learned to fence and became something of a precursor to Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Indeed, his sword became something of a danger to fellow thespians.

After the father’s death on a return trip from California, Edwin inherited both title and success, keeping the most lucrative theater territory for himself, and was mostly successful in relegating John’s acting efforts to the South, Midwest and smaller venues. Occasionally, John tried to break in on New York or Boston using the Booth name.

The author’s great skill is weaving the family’s travels and attitudes into what was occurring across the nation. In England, Junius’ father once dreamt of the glorious United States, and treasured a portrait of George Washington. Indeed, he eventually followed his son to America.

Edwin was a great “unionist” and, for a variety of well-explained reasons, John saw himself and the South as romantic rebels, superior by nature and cheated of their heritage. Titone brings forth the evidence in elegant prose backed up by solid documentation.

Maine readers will enjoy the fact that John was playing “The Corsican Brothers” in Portland as the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter. Crediting our own Herb Adams with assistance, author Titone handles the moment of theater history with panache. His grand moment came when the corpse of the slain Corsican brother, rapier in hand, was sent “hurtling toward the audience in a swift unbroken movement, while violins in the orchestra scraped away like banshees.”

All was done by hidden machinery which, unfortunately for the haughty John, “jerked the poor actor along in fits and starts.” The audience howled, and when Booth left town he failed to pay his bills, causing the press to term him “lacking the requirements of a gentleman.”

Anyone wishing to gauge the temper of the American attitudes in various regions before, during and after the Civil War could not do much better than “My Thoughts Be Bloody.” It is a documented, elevated history at its best, and a great American adventure.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored six books, including “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland.