The Sunday Question: Which Book Most Changed Your Mind?

I’ve decided to start a new feature here, called The Sunday Question, in which I ask you, the readers, to answer a fairly simple and direct question.  The answers might offer something for discussion.  For the inaugural post in this series, the question is … which Civil War era* book most changed your mind about something?  Why?

*”Civil War era” encompasses the coming of the war, the war, and Reconstruction, as well as Civil War-related topics.

21 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Which Book Most Changed Your Mind?

  1. Robert Moore February 20, 2011 / 7:27 am

    This is a tough question, because a number of books came to my attention at about the same time, while writing my thesis for my MA in Hist. Strangely, all of this also coincided with my falling-out with the SCV. Nonetheless, one of the key books that stood out was Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion.

    For starters, Dew’s opening was quite revealing for me. A Southerner engaging in content that was contrary to his upbringing. Indeed, at that time, I too was involved in very similar engagement, while writing about Unionism, disaffection, and disillusion among people in my home county in Virginia. I felt sympathetic for Dew’s frustration. Not that I was frustrated with what some might label “the lies in front of me”, after all, this was primary source material… not the so-called revisionist spin of modern historians. Rather, my frustration was with the myths that I had come to embrace in my youth. One might say that I found the glow of the Southern moonlight less warming, and the magnolias a bit more bland, at at times nauseatingly pungent.

  2. Bill February 20, 2011 / 8:49 am

    I would have to say it was Sherman’s Horseman. My knowledge of the whole battle of and for Atlanta was general and this book showed the ineptness of the leadership and how it was made up for by the men who did the fighting.

  3. Chris Meekins February 20, 2011 / 9:11 am

    I would agree with Robert that this is a tough question. My answer will seem a little odd but here it goes. I would have to say it was exposure to the study of history – historiography – that truly changed my thinking about how we view that period of US history. Peter Novik’s “That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession” and “Telling the Truth About History” by Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob helped me understand as professionals how historians have written and studied the period. Understanding this gave me context for the struggles and challenges historians face today; the internal arguments between professionals and the external arguments between professionals and knowledgeable non-professionals. To understand that historiography is a gateway into so many aspects of current writing and studies. Memory studies, for example, just seem such a natural extension of historiography.
    Its a good question, I hope others will weigh in.

    • Robert Moore February 20, 2011 / 9:37 am

      Ooh, that’s a good one, Chris. “Telling the Truth” was critical in my growth as a better historian.

      • Chris Meekins February 21, 2011 / 12:51 pm

        Philip Paladin’s “Victims” centered on the Shelton Laurel killings and a focus of locl history writ large was another game changer, for me.

      • Chris Meekins February 21, 2011 / 12:52 pm

        Phillip S Paludan’s “Victims” centered on the Shelton Laurel killings and a focus of locl history writ large was another game changer, for me.

  4. Scott Manning February 20, 2011 / 12:05 pm

    McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. It made me realize how central slavery was to the political discourse in the decades leading up to the war. Without slavery, there was no secession. Without secession, there was no war.

  5. Jimmy Price February 20, 2011 / 12:44 pm

    For someone who grew up reading The Killer Angels and visiting Gettysburg at least once a year, These Honored Dead: How The Story Of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory by Thomas A. Desjardin was quite an eye opener.

  6. Margaret D. Blough February 20, 2011 / 12:45 pm

    For me, it was William Garrett Piston’s “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” and the insight he gave into the creation of myth of the Lost Cause.

    • Bob Pollock February 21, 2011 / 8:56 am

      I picked up Piston’s book on Longstreet and Blight’s “Race and Reunion” at about the same time back in about 2000- 2001. Prior to that, as much history as I had read in my life, I don’t think I had ever really considered how history is shaped, evolves over time, and is used to promote current social and political issues; that there is a “history of history.” I think this revelation is part of what prompted me to go to grad school.

  7. Kristilyn Baldwin February 20, 2011 / 1:39 pm

    My answer is a little less sophisticated than McPherson, although I read his book and completely agree with Scott Manning. For me, it has to be “Gods and Generals.” Before you laugh, let me say that YES, I know it is fictional literature. I loved this book because it introduced me to a completely new perspective of the war. We learn about the war in big concepts: the Union, the Government, Slavery etc., and we study political and military strategies and outcomes. The participants are often referred to using only one name- Lee, Jackson, Hancock – and are remembered for their heroic contribution to a specific battle. “Gods and Generals”, for me, turned the great Stonewall Jackson into a man who loved God, children, and his troops, and who suffered loss and pain and questioned himself as a leader. Yes, I understand that the interior dialogue of the book is fiction, and he may have been NONE of those things, but that’s not the point. The book made me realize that these were men. They had personalities, beliefs, fears, and desires. They laughed and cried and doubted themselves, perhaps not at the exact moment Shaara suggests, but it doesn’t matter. For me, this book introduced a very real, personal and complex point of view to the grandiose Civil War that history books could never do.

    • Richard February 20, 2011 / 2:16 pm

      Kristilyn, I understand your answer. When I first read “The Killer Angels” it certainly hooked me further into studying about this war.

      My answer, though, is more of one that “opened” my mind rather than changed it. I know it’s a recent read and that this time frame may bias my response, but “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” by Anne Marshall, along with my fairly recent discovery of Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory Blog, has certainly made me look more at how the was is remembered and studied, rather than just the war itself. It’s a completely different angle and perspective than I had ever considered before and has caught my attention as something else to consider when I read a Civil War story (such as in the modern media) or see a monument of some sort.

  8. Al Mackey February 20, 2011 / 2:10 pm

    McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Previous to that I had bought some of the Lost Cause myth about the Union having responsibility for overcrowding in prison camps, plus I had bought some of the mythology about state rights being a cause of the Civil War. McPherson showed me the error of my ways.

  9. Mark February 20, 2011 / 5:55 pm

    The book which changed things for me was Elizabeth Pryor’s “Reading the Man” about Robert E Lee. Although Pryor is an ardent admirer of Lee, and excuses or justifies everything he did, she shows an astonishingly different picture of Lee, if you can decipher the euphemisms.

    On some things she is astonishingly candid — declaring positively that Lee kept a hunting list of escaped slaves, and kept obsessive track of the slave girls. He paid six times his normal bounty for the return of one young girl, she tells about. Apparently is was this girl Lee had tortured, and screamed at the girl during her torture.

    But Pyror dismisses Lee’s complicity in the torture of slaves by attributing it to “Lee’s poor cross culturaly communication skills.” That reminds me of the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where the warden whipped Paul Newman, after saying “What we have here, is a failure to communicate”

    Pryor tries valiantly to keep Lee’s halo upon his historical head, by soft peddling some things. For example, she seems very coy about what Lee did with the white looking slave children born to his mulatto girls. We do learn from her that all the young girls were gone — but where? You can’t rent out infants to work, as Lee did with most of his slaves. Pryor is maddingly vague, but she does claim “Lee separated every family unit, but one”

    Separated family units? Did George Orwell have Pryor in mind? What does separating every family unit mean? And where did Lee send the white looking infants he was obsessing about? One can assume Pryor knew more than she told, but she told plenty.

    Still, for all Pryor’s vagueness and euphemisms, she had the chutzpah to admit things no one else did. Of the famous Norris statement, which detailed Lee screaming at slave girls while he had them tortured, Pryor says the Norris statement was “unquestionably valid” — because Norris mentioned facts, times, cities and names, that Lee had in his own account book.

    For Norris to be making this up, he would have had to sneak across enemy lines during the civil war, get into Lee’s personal papers, sneak back to the North, then wait till after the war when he was interviewed by New York reporters. Then he would have had to inject these facts he memorized from Lee’s papers, and hoped historians would notice the similarities 150 years in the future. Now THAT would have been one smart grave digger. (Norris dug graves).

    Pryor also shows that Lee had sharpshooters BEHIND his own troops, to shoot his own troops, if they ran during battle. (page 410). How’s that for a myth buster?

    The ironic thing about Pryors book, you could read it and not realize Lee had just been shown as never before — because of the gentle and careful way Pryor can turn a phrase. The Journal of Southern History reviewed the book very favorably.

  10. James F. Epperson February 20, 2011 / 5:56 pm

    Man, is that a tough question!

    Part of me wants to agree with my good friends Margaret and Al (and others) and go with BCoF. But it didn’t change *my* mind, it showed me that I was right about the centrality of slavery. So I am going to say “Come Retribution,” which convinced me that Booth’s assassination plot was not the simple act of a single madman.

  11. John Stoudt February 20, 2011 / 7:30 pm

    Good question. Thanks for the opportunity.

    I’ll say that my choice is Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s _Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men_. Hummel’s text is stylishly written, and his interpretations are provocative. The bibliographical essays at the end of each chapter are outstanding contribution. Hummel’s book changed my perspective on the Civil War era.

  12. Sherree February 21, 2011 / 4:56 am

    Your comments on CW Memory. Prior to reading what you said about Sherman and how slaves followed his army, I did not see Sherman as a liberator. I still have many problems with Sherman, primarily because of his devastating attitude and actions involving Indigenous Nations (I was quite shocked when President Obama hailed the building of the transcontinental railroad as an American achievement to be admired. I attribute this observation that I consider to be a misconception to a blind spot that exists in the President’s –and in our–education as Americans) Nevertheless, I do now understand how Sherman was indeed a liberator, and that is because of you, Brooks, so chalk that one up as a success story of blogging.

    On bloggers knowing too much about their readers–that is troublesome, but comes with the territory if a reader decides to comment. That is one reason that I do not even link to certain sites.

    Two books that influenced me were Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

  13. Marc Ferguson February 21, 2011 / 11:09 am

    After thinking about this question a bit, I would say the book related to Civil War subjects that changed my mind was William Lee Miller’s _Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography_. While I don’t agree with everything Miller writes in this book, it strikes me as a little too teleological in terms of seeing an inevitable and intentional trajectory in Lincoln’s thought, it made me look at him anew. Prior to reading Miller I had viewed Lincoln as merely overrated and unjustly celebrated as an American icon, and while I didn’t quite subscribe to Lerone Bennett’s view, I was sympathetic to his accusations about Lincoln. I have since read a good deal of the Lincoln literature and now appreciate him as a complex and admirable figure.

  14. Helga Ross February 21, 2011 / 12:27 pm

    Winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in History
    Mary Chesnut’s Civil War edited by C. Vann Woodward

  15. Ethan S. Rafuse February 22, 2011 / 1:05 pm

    J.F.C. Fuller, Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship.

  16. Dick Stanley February 23, 2011 / 1:51 am

    This is an easy one for me. Although Woodward’s editing of Chesnut’s dairies was compelling, it was Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book on Lee’s letters. I was always a little suspicious of the Marble Man. Her work confirmed my suspicion, but also left me appreciating him more for knowing his flaws, particularly on the subject of slavery.

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