The top 12 Civil War books ever written
One great book for each month of 2011, the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States
By Glenn W. LaFantasie in Salon
If, like me, you received a necktie with reindeer on it from Santa instead of a good Civil War book under the Christmas tree, then you might try selecting one for yourself from my own list of the top 12 Civil War books, which I offer here in the spirit of the season and, even more appropriately, as the 150th anniversary of the war is about to begin. Perhaps your own observance of the sesquicentennial could include reading one of these books a month over the next year. If so, I can promise you’ll be edified by every one of them, even if they do not end up on your own personal list of favorite Civil War books. And something more: there’ll be no exam next December.
Putting together such a list is, of course, a nearly impossible task, given the stacks and stacks of excellent books on the Civil War that have been published since 1865. Historians like to say that 60,000 books, give or take a few thousand, have been written about the war, but I’d wager that estimate is way too low. One needs only ponder the steady stream of books on nearly every aspect of the war that regularly roll off the presses to realize that Americans never seem to get enough of their favorite war.
Trying to name the top dozen Civil War books of all time is, admittedly, a brazen act on my part. Nevertheless, the books on this list are, indeed, my all-time favorites — cherished works that have informed and inspired me, sometimes leaving me awestruck. In some cases, I’ve read these books more than once. Each time, I extract something new from them; never has my opinion of them lessened from reading them again. They are like old friends: They never wear you out and they don’t ask much from you, other than that you think of them from time to time and recall what they mean to you.
All of these books occupy a special place in my own collection of Civil War works — not only because I’m a Civil War historian, but also because these happen to be extraordinary books, every one of which has been written by exceptionally gifted authors. These are the sort of books you wish you hadn’t read before, if only because you’d like to recapture the pure delight of reading them fresh for the first time. I hope you’ll find my descriptions of them enticing enough to seek them out for yourself. No doubt you might disagree with my assessment of them. One of my wisest professors once said that books don’t belong to their authors — they belong to their readers. Every reader will have a different response to these books, but my hope is that you might enjoy them — or any one of them — as much as I do.
First, some arbitrary rules that have guided my selection of titles. I’ve only included books published after World War II, which means I’m leaving out a long shelf of good books issued before the second half of the 20th century, some of which still stand the test of time. Out of necessity, I’ve narrowly defined the universe from which I have picked my top dozen. For example, I’ve not included any biographies on this list — an exclusion that some may find indefensible. No series or multivolume works are included here either, which means that Allan Nevins’ majestic “The Ordeal of the Union” (eight volumes), Bruce Catton’s “Centennial History of the Civil War” (three volumes), and Shelby Foote’s very popular “The Civil War” (three volumes) are not to be found below, despite the fact that they all qualify as masterpieces. What’s more, I’ve stuck to only nonfiction titles, so fans of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” or Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” (both winners of the Pulitzer Prize) will be disappointed to see these novels missing from my list.
In any event, here are a dozen books that, for me, tell the story of the Civil War with literary elegance, intellectual gusto and enormous flair. Most of these books are in print (and in paper editions) and may be purchased at your local bookstore, from out-of-print book dealers, or from any of numerous book retailers on the Internet (links provided in the list below are to BarnesandNoble.com).
12. “The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War”: This coffee-table book, first published by the old American Heritage magazine company in 1960, offers lavish illustrations, including scores of photographs by Mathew Brady and other masterful war photographers, and a lively narrative by Bruce Catton, who was widely considered at the time to be the dean of Civil War historians. Although American Heritage tried to update the book for a new generation of readers by publishing a more dazzling edition in 2001 (mostly by adding illustrations, captions and sidebars while retaining Catton’s basic text), the original edition remains a classic; in many respects, the old outshines the new, which lacks editorial cohesion and seems almost slapdash in its presentation. If you are a Civil War enthusiast and you don’t own the 1960 edition, your library is woefully incomplete. If you are only casually interested in the Civil War, this is the one book you should read and own.
11. “Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America”: This slim book packs a powerful punch. As the title says, this is as much a book about America during the Civil War era as it is about Lincoln, who led the Northern states to victory. The late William E. Gienapp, who taught at Harvard, skillfully weaves Lincoln’s life and the great events of his lifetime into a single, riveting narrative. What’s remarkable about this book is how much ground it covers, including perspicacious tidbits about Lincoln, in just over 200 pages. Felicitously written, this book is captivating and informative. By no means is this simply a rehash — old wine in a new bottle. Gienapp offers a fresh perspective on the Civil War and the 16th president who became one of its most tragic victims.
10. “Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation”: As the Civil War erupted, Abraham Lincoln called on the states to supply men and arms for an army. In doing so, he defined the modern role of the president as commander in chief. In this robustly written book, William C. Davis, a prolific and remarkably talented author, explains how Lincoln not only organized the government to fight the Civil War, but how he successfully won the affection of the thousands of Northern soldiers who filled the ranks, marched down dusty roads, and, in so many cases, gave their lives for the Union cause. For these soldiers, the president became “Father Abraham,” and their devotion to him and to their country manifested itself in their faith that his leadership would eventually pilot them down the road to victory. Relying on unpublished soldier letters and diaries to great effect, Davis reveals in stunning detail what was in the hearts and minds of Northern soldiers who adored their president and who made the crucial difference in electing him to a second term in 1864.
9. “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War”: As Charles Bracelen Flood makes perfectly clear in this engaging book, the Union would have lost the war had it not been for the professional and personal relationship between Ulysses S. Grant, the Union army’s general in chief, and William Tecumseh Sherman, his subordinate. From the very start of this book, the reader follows these men as they lead their armies to victory in both theaters of the war, east and west. Flood’s writing is fluid and compelling: He does not get caught in the trap of telling one man’s story and then the other, chapter by chapter, like a pendulum in a grandfather clock — first tick (Grant), then tock (Sherman). Instead, the author blends his account of the two generals into a perfect whole and makes us feel, page after page, that we are in the presence of these great soldiers, marching off to war or sitting by a campfire with them. There is probably no better book that explains precisely how the Union, guided by these two brilliant officers, won the Civil War.
8. “Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave”: Countless “battle books” about the Civil War have been published, particularly over the past 50 years or so, but this account of Chancellorsville, written by Ernest B. (“Pat”) Furgurson, stands out as one of the very best. Furgurson, another former journalist, not only recounts the story behind what most historians regard as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory, he does so in a manner that keeps the reader totally enthralled, page after page. Focusing as much on ordinary soldiers as he does on generals (including Confederate Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who was fatally wounded by “friendly fire”), he depicts the battle as a grim human ordeal, which it surely was, with men grappling desperately to kill their enemies in rows and droves, struggling all the while to achieve victory at practically any cost. As one would expect from a newspaperman, Furgurson has a fine eye for detail and displays a nimble aptitude for injecting pathos into this tale of two armies bent on destroying one another. His prose flows with a simple felicity that is enviable. One sentence offers a prime example: “The rain fell and the river rose.” Sounds like Hemingway. Reads like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
7. “Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam”: This is probably the best book ever written on any single battle of the Civil War. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, clashed in Maryland with the Union Army of the Potomac, led by George B. McClellan, in what would turn out to be the single bloodiest day of the Civil War and in all of American history. The casualties were staggering: More than 23,000 soldiers were killed, lay wounded on the field, or went missing after the battle. Stephen W. Sears, the author of several splendid Civil War books, conveys all the human drama of the battle, skillfully shifting from generals to soldiers in the ranks to reconstruct the battle through the eyes of the men who fought it. With deftness, Sears shows how this great fight — which ended technically in a draw — unfolded by fits and starts, with no one on either side having control over what was taking place or what would happen next, a whirlwind of men and noise that ripped from one end of the battlefield to the other, the whole outcome fully dependent on contingency, fate and luck. Although Sears is not a lyricist (his writing tends to be lean and taut), he writes with terrific polish and great authority.
6. “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War”: Actually this is not a book about the Civil War; rather, it’s a book about how Americans — and particularly Southerners — think about the war today and how the war’s legacies continue to shape our lives. In the 1990s, Tony Horwitz, another journalist, took to the highways to discover for himself what the Civil War means to modern Americans. He hoped to find out why the Civil War looms so large in the nation’s memory, so much so that “living historians” spend thousands of dollars outfitting themselves as Yankees and Rebels who fire blank cartridges at one another in Civil War battle reenactments, and other Americans, black and white, still struggle over the Confederate battle flag, one of the war’s caustic symbols of the “Lost Cause.” In describing his travels through the South, Horowitz delineates how the Civil War lives on in our culture. His book is a funny, sober, poignant, and intelligent report on why the Civil War seems never to have ended. But Horwitz, for all his whimsy, reaches a serious and unsettling conclusion: We, as a nation, are nowhere near laying to rest the problems that the Civil War failed to solve.
5. “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”: David W. Blight’s book, published in 2001, explores how the past is connected to the present by looking at the ways in which Americans have remembered the Civil War. His deeply researched and carefully crafted study argues that after the war white veterans, Union and Confederate, facilitated the reconciliation of the two sections by consciously avoiding the fact that slavery had brought on the sectional conflict, choosing instead to celebrate the courage that they and their comrades had brandished in battle. Less consciously, they and their fellow Americans found this new narrative — this rewriting of history based on a kind of historical amnesia — comforting and restorative. Reunification became a joyful event, but it came at a steep price. After Reconstruction, Northerners and Southerners alike took hold of a “Lost Cause” ideology that showed pity toward the South in its defeat, accepted Jim Crow policies that deprived blacks of their civil rights, and pushed for policies and practices that would ensure white supremacy across the land. Blight carefully avoids grinding axes as he makes his argument, which taken as a whole helps to explain why America today continues to wrestle with the seemingly endless and divisive issue of race, even while a black man resides in the White House. Here is a powerful book, artfully written by a scholar of learned poise who believes that by knowing the past we might better know ourselves.
4. “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War”: This book takes stamina, not because it is poorly written or because it fails to command the reader’s attention, but because it deals with an enormously difficult, but vitally important, subject — how death, which came to nearly every household during the four years of the Civil War, was perceived and handled by the soldiers on the front lines and civilians on the home front as North and South tried to cope with a war that produced, as one Union officer called it, “a carnival of death.” Drew Gilpin Faust, a historian who’s now the president of Harvard, addresses a topic that other historians have failed to discuss in any depth or substance, often because our own romantic images of the Civil War block out its most distressing — and grisly — reality. More than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the war, which meant that Northerners and Southerners had to deal with the deaths of loved ones and friends in unprecedented numbers — shocking casualty figures that exceeded anything that Americans ever experienced before. Faust’s prose is appropriately somber in tone. Her stately style, however, fits perfectly with her subject; she discusses the ultimate horror of war, the grim loss of lives on battlefields far away, and how those left behind — soldiers and civilians alike — struggled to cope with their emptiness and their grief. This is a sobering book; but it is also brilliant and profound.
3. “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”: For many people, this is their favorite Civil War book. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989 for this book, James M. McPherson, now a professor emeritus at Princeton University, set out to tell the story of the Civil War in a single (though huge) volume by writing a gripping narrative that relied on eyewitness accounts of the war and on the most recent scholarship in the field of Civil War studies. He achieved his goal admirably and with great flourish. By any measure, this is the best one-volume history of the war. McPherson’s prose shines, even bedazzles, throughout the book, although he’s less than agile in making transitions within chapters from one subject to the next, and his writing sometimes grows suddenly dull and weak, only to gain strength by the next chapter. Nonetheless, this is a great book, an epic book — herculean in size and scope. McPherson’s mastery of the war’s details alone defies comprehension. It’s doubtful that any other historian will come along soon with the necessary talent and energy to write a single-volume history of the war that can match this one in style, content and substance.
2. “The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans”: Charles Royster’s book is unlike any other I’ve ever read about the Civil War. For one thing, it’s badly subtitled; the main title should have been left to stand on its own. For another, it defies ready description because it offers a nuanced — and, to a certain degree, a disturbing — interpretation of the Civil War. Drawing on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, Royster, a distinguished professor at Louisiana State University, paints a multilayered and strikingly vibrant portrait of American society in the war years by displaying its true colors — the war, he argues, in all its destructive and terrible brutality, was precisely the kind of war that the nation’s citizens, North and South, wanted (in other words, be careful what you wish for), despite all the lamentations that could be heard as the war grew in intensity and became increasingly more cataclysmal from one battle to the next. But Royster does not stop there. He explains how Americans, who expressed a deep ambivalence in their feelings about the war, could be passively shocked by their own destructiveness and, at the same time, aggressively hopeful that their armies would totally annihilate the enemy, leaving no foe standing by war’s end. Still, he points out, Americans on both sides, Northerners and Southerners, exaggerated the actual levels of violence and destruction that occurred during the war, leading subsequent generations to conclude that the Civil War resembled the total warfare of the 20th century. Even so, there was no denying the warrior instincts of generals like Stonewall Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of whom seem to have thrived on battle and the chaos of war. With lucid prose, and by combining narrative and thematic chapters into an innovative mosaic, Royster unveils a Civil War that is totally at odds with what you’ve read before or what you think you know about the conflict. Nevertheless, his rendition of the war — filled with all its complexities, ambiguities, vicarious pleasures, overwhelming miseries, inherent contradictions, violent hyperbole and actual violence — makes utter sense. The Civil War, in other words, was no simple episode in our nation’s history, despite all our efforts to see it only as blue versus gray, brother against brother. The book, published in 1991, won the Bancroft Prize in American History. It should have won a Pulitzer.
1. “A Stillness at Appomattox”: My top choice did win a Pulitzer for its author, Bruce Catton. For those who aren’t familiar with his works, which are plentiful, he was probably the 20th century’s foremost American writer of narrative histories, most of which were about the Civil War. Published in 1953, “A Stillness at Appomattox” details the experiences of the Army of the Potomac during the final year of the war, but it is much more than a retelling of an often told tale. In fact, one could say this book is a prose poem to the Army of the Potomac and the men who fought in it. As a child growing up in Michigan, Catton knew and spoke to Civil War veterans in his small hometown. Although a good part of his career was spent as a newspaper journalist and columnist, he took up writing Civil War books in the 1950s, became the senior editor of American Heritage magazine, and gained great fame as an author until his death in 1978. Catton wrote not only with a journalist’s eye, but also with a novelist’s sensibilities (although he only ever published one novel on the Civil War for juvenile readers). Today his name — and the quality of his work — is largely forgotten, although Civil War historians and enthusiasts still heap high praise on him for his long list of highly satisfying Civil War books and biographies. “A Stillness at Appomattox” stands out from all the rest of his writings. As this fine book reveals so expressively, Catton forged a trail for later Civil War historians by writing his account of the Army of the Potomac from the point of view of soldiers in the ranks. By means of lilting sentences, adroit portraits of men and their peccadilloes, and iron-hard descriptions of men in battle, Catton turns the Army of the Potomac into more than a mass of men in wartime; his picture of the army and its soldiers convinces you that he was there with them, which of course he wasn’t, but you feel that anyway because his narrative carries you back into the world in which those soldiers lived and died. Beneath the surface of Catton’s chronicle runs the awful specter of the tolls of war — how war dehumanizes, stultifies, and yet breeds comradery, trust and even love among those who wage it. Long before academic historians turned to highlighting the “face of battle” in their military studies of the Civil War, Catton sketched accurately and effectively the dour features of that face. More to his credit, Catton discussed — in this book and in others — how slavery was the cause of the war, the plight of slaves and freedmen as the war wore on, and the importance of the Union cause as a driving force behind the determination of Northern soldiers to win the war and reunite the country. This book leaves sharp images lingering in the reader’s mind, largely because Catton expertly sets scenes, describes people in human terms, and refuses to disguise the ugly, malevolent and heartless aspects of war. Yet, in the end, the book is surprisingly uplifting, a splendid tale of victory, no doubt because Catton so adeptly uses irony and compassion to tell the Army of the Potomac’s story. Walt Whitman once famously said, “the real war will never get in the books.” He was wrong. The real war, in all its dimensions, can be luminously found in this, the best book ever written about the Civil War.
Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.