47 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Civil War Era Biography?

  1. jfepperson August 26, 2014 / 8:04 am

    Almost too many to choose from. I’m going to have to think about this. (Your Grant bio is out-of-bounds because you asked the question.)

    I’m going to go with a recent read, simply because it is fresh in my mind—Tony Horwitz’s “Midnight Rising,” about John Brown. Why? Because I believe I learned a lot from the book, and it was very well-written.

    I have heard that Wills’ bio of Thomas is very good, but I haven’t had time to open it yet. I also need to build up my arm muscles some before I try 😉

    When I get home I will no doubt discover a better choice on my bookshelves.

  2. Rosemary August 26, 2014 / 9:25 am

    John Hay. Because he was cute and fun and if I could time travel to him and got him liquored up I’d bet he’d talk and I’d get all the scoop (and all the dirt.) As it is, what he wrote and what he did is pretty good.

    • Rosemary August 28, 2014 / 5:36 am

      To be specific: Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay edited by Michael Burlingame

  3. John Foskett August 26, 2014 / 11:52 am

    I have what may appear to be an odd choice – No Disgrace to My Country, Eugene Tidball’s biography of his ancestor John C. Tidball. Generally a well-written book about an important but under-appreciated figure who had interesting pre-war, Civil War, and post-war experiences. Of course, my addiction to Civil War artillery plays a role in this choice and there isn;t much about artillerists in this genre (Longacre on Hunt, I forget who on Pegram and \ Brown’s well-done book about Cushing are examples), but this is a solid biography with only a few minor errors.

    • Chris Evans August 29, 2014 / 6:08 pm

      I like the Tidball book too. Have just been glancing at, by the way. Some of the chapters are wonderful, especially the ones mostly in Tidball’s words.

      Peter Carmichael wrote the book on Pegram.


  4. Christopher Shelley August 26, 2014 / 3:29 pm

    I tend to shy away from biographies, so I haven’t read many. Gordon Dodds’ _Young Man In a Hurry_ about Isaac Ingles Stevens; and I suppose Donald’s _Lincoln_, although I know that’s not very inspired.

    I plan on reading your Grant book, Brooks, when it comes into Powell’s books.

  5. Bob Nelson August 26, 2014 / 4:48 pm

    Politically correct, as I always try to be (LOL), I’d pick “Let Us Have Peace” by some guy in Arizona. FWIW, I hope you have had a pleasant summer with reasonable temperatures. Loved your ice bucket challenge. Bet if felt great. BTW, we have not hit 90 one single day yet this summer here in Grand Rapids, MI. Favorite bio? So many to consider. I would suggest Ethan Rafuse’s “McClellan’s War.” Why? The first three chapters, which IMO explain McClellan’s character better than any other piece on the man — how his family, his Whig background, his father and his need for order established his character and explain better than Sears (also a great book) why he behaved as he did later. People ask here and on other sites, “Why didn’t McClellan do this? Why didn’t McClellan do that?” Read Rafuse.

    • Jerry Sudduth August 27, 2014 / 5:53 am

      I fully agree, that is the most influential book on the war I’ve read and it changed my perception of the man.

      I can’t recommend it enough.

      I also like Eric Wittenberg’s “Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly,” which is a biography of Ulric Dalhgren, he’s much more than the final raid that bears his name.

  6. Rob Wick August 26, 2014 / 4:58 pm

    Hands down I still think Benjamin Thomas’s biography of Lincoln is the best. Of course, it’s dated, but it combines readability and solid scholarship in a single volume. Second choice would be Carl Sandburg’s single volume biography of Lincoln. It still has the Sandburg poetics but with the influence of J.G. Randall, Allan Nevins and Paul Angle and the persistent digging of Harry Pratt as Sandburg’s unofficial researcher, it has much more in the way of scholarship than his six-volume effort.


  7. Bob Huddleston August 26, 2014 / 6:26 pm

    I would define “favorite” as a book I like to pick up and reread. Almost by definition, it has to be one on a person that fascinates me. I want the book to be very enjoyable reading, one which does make me think and one which I can read and reread. In the Civil War Era that would be a biography of either A. Lincoln or US Grant.

    There is no biography of Lincoln which entrances me. Burlingame’s 2 volumes are full but hardly the type of book to make me want to curl up with in the evening. However, the various collections of reminiscences of Lincoln’s contemporaries edited in modern editions by Burlingame, Wilson and Davis and the Fehrenbachers (sp?) are fun to pick up.

    For Grant there are only two choices: one by the fellow lost in Arizona – who spends too much time gabbing online instead of getting volume 2 done – and Bruce Catton and Lloyd Lewis’ three volumes. I know the latter are dated, especially Lloyd Lewis, but Catton wrote, as Mark Grimsley once commented, as though he owned the Civil War.

    Others that I look into on lazy days include George Templeton Strong’s _Civil War Diary_ and _The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear_. I would have liked to have sat down with either man and listen to them talk about the ‘60s! Spear, in particular, gave me a different view of Joshua Chamberlain, away from the hagiography of Pullen.


  8. Larry Hartzell August 26, 2014 / 6:29 pm

    Tough question, but I’ll go with David Cecelski’s _The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War_. It brings to life an utterly unknown but hugely important figure in the Civil War era, and it is not only very well written but uses source material in an imaginative, compelling way.

  9. Jimmy Dick August 26, 2014 / 6:51 pm

    Right now I’m reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I like this book a lot. Not sure if it’s the best biography from the CW period or not though. It does not explore Lincoln as in depth as a full blown biography would, but it has been very good with exploring Lincon in this concept.

    • jfepperson August 27, 2014 / 8:26 am

      I knew someone would remind me of better choices than the one I made! Team of Rivals is outstanding, IMO.

    • Bob Nelson August 27, 2014 / 10:22 am

      I am also reading it right now. Good book. As one of my friends put it years ago, “So many books, so little time.” LOL

  10. Ned B August 26, 2014 / 8:09 pm

    A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century
    by Witold Rybczynski

  11. Candice Hooper August 27, 2014 / 7:48 am

    John Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order. Marszalek pulls no punches. It is a fascinating portrait.

    • Christopher Shelley August 28, 2014 / 10:15 pm

      Wow, Sandi! You just waded in, didn’t you? That takes an immense amount of energy. Nice job.

  12. Ken Noe August 27, 2014 / 6:37 pm

    Paul Anderson, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind

  13. Mark H. August 28, 2014 / 6:05 am

    Given yesterday’s news, I enjoyed “Cushing of Gettysburg” by Kent Brown.

    • John Foskett August 28, 2014 / 11:08 am

      As I indicated in my post, that is another good one.

      • Mark H. August 29, 2014 / 8:44 am

        Apology for the oversight.

        • John Foskett August 31, 2014 / 7:52 am

          No need – it was my way of saying that i agree. We need more books in the unsung heroes of the Long Arm. 🙂

  14. chancery August 28, 2014 / 9:59 am

    Answering my own question above, I figured out the Professor Epperson was referring to “George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel,” by Brian Steel Wills. (When I see “Wills” I think of Gary Wills, so was confused.)

  15. Al Mackey August 28, 2014 / 10:50 am

    Hmm. By “Civil War Era Biography,” do you mean a biography written during the Civil War Era or a biography written at any time about someone who lived during the Civil War Era? 🙂

    I’m not sure I’ve ever read any written during the Civil War Era. Going with the latter, I’ll have to say there are more than one: Triumph Over Adversity, David Donald’s Lincoln, Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, even though I think she was too hagiographic toward Lincoln, Robertson’s Stonewall Jackson, and Freeman’s R. E. Lee, again even though very hagiographic.

    • John Foskett August 28, 2014 / 12:45 pm

      Not sure I’d use “hagiographic” about Robertson’s, but I’m not sure I’d use “balanced” either. It more or less fed that God-awful piece of cinematic junk which Maxwell and Turner inflicted on us. 🙂

      • Al Mackey August 28, 2014 / 8:44 pm

        John, I intended to apply “hagiographic” to Freeman, not Robertson. I think that Maxwell went beyond what Professor Robertson wrote, especially in the scene where Jackson is talking with Jim at the campfire. It’s pretty obvious Professor Robertson likes Jackson, but I think his book is a magnificent example of scholarship.

        • John Foskett August 30, 2014 / 8:09 am


          My fault for not being articulate. i understood that you were referring to Freeman – I was using “hagiographic” in reference to my own evaluation of Robertson. I agree on the scholarship but I don’t think that Robertson assessed Jackson with complete objectivity. Full disclosure: I think that Jackson was significantly overrated and greatly benefiitted from dying when he did. He was a thoroughly mediocre tactician (the list of tactical shortcomings is a long one) and had unnecessarily bad relationships with many subordinates – rarely a good thing in war, sports, or work. Robertson does a lot of “quick kicking” on those issues IMHO.

          • Al Mackey September 1, 2014 / 8:22 am

            Robertson always describes Jackson as carrying out what Lee directed. I find little to fault him with in his Valley Campaign. There is much to fault him with in his performance at Seven Days, though I think Robertson has it right that Jackson was physically and mentally exhausted. I think reading Robertson gives one an insight into how hard it was to be one of Jackson’s subordinates. The man was difficult to understand and wouldn’t explain himself. This led to enormous frustration for Dick Ewell and Powell Hill. William Loring used political connections to get out from under Jackson. I think Robertson lays that all out quite well. It’s also true that Robertson’s genuine admiration for Jackson comes through loud and clear. He really finds this guy likeable. Dick Ewell came to admire Jackson very much as well. I think Robertson addressed Jackson’s failings, though I think he addressed them in a way that people who don’t like Jackson will probably not be satisfied in reading.

          • Al Mackey September 1, 2014 / 8:28 am

            Having said all that, as much as I admire Prof. Robertson’s biography, if someone was asking me for a recommendation for military lessons learned from Jackson, I’d point them to GFR Henderson’s book, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War. Henderson was himself a military officer looking for lessons from Jackson, and I think he did a fine job. I think the biggest lesson out of it is the importance of speed.

            However, if one is looking for the best overall account of Jackson, then Robertson is the way to go.

          • John Foskett September 5, 2014 / 3:25 pm

            Ah yes, Brother Douglas. Another member of the Bloviation/Inflation Club, with Brothers Gordon and Chamberlain, et al., and legendary author of that first-person account “Stonewall Rode With Me”.

          • Chris Evans September 6, 2014 / 7:38 am

            When reading Douglas’s memoir recently I was struck how it wasn’t as over the top as it has been made out over the years.

            And I know Chamberlain is a whipping boy for taking all of the credit for Little Round Top and Appomattox but reading the entry on him in ‘Medical Histories of Union Generals’ by Jack D. Welsh for his wounds at Petersburg he earned my respect. As much as we now respect ‘Wounded Warriors’ and then rip on Chamberlain I just kind of find it kind of ironic.


          • John Foskett September 6, 2014 / 9:55 am

            Douglas had a bit of a rep while he was alive for varnishing the truth. In fact, the interesting review which you’ve posted features HK a lbit more prominently in the anecdotes than one expects from the run of the mill book reviewer. I think the eyes were a little close together. And nobody questions Chamberlain’s bravery at Petersburg (or Gordon’s at Antietam, for that matter). The fact is that all three had a tendency to poetic license. You can find that assessment “ironic” if you want – others might see it as simply being objective without being blinded by the medals.. And if you aren’t tired of the “Chamberlain Saved the Union Army/Washington D.C. at Gettysburg” hype, you are indeed a tolerant guy.

          • John Foskett September 1, 2014 / 12:20 pm

            I actually think that even in the Valley Campaign there were tactical shortcomings at Front Royal and Port Republic which Robertson glosses over (as do most). Ecelbarger is very good on the former and Krick pretty good on the latter. I’ve never bought into the Tired Stonewall theory as a complete explanation for the repeated screw ups during the Seven Days in light of Jackson’s remaining tactical “body of work”. There are (1) First Kernstown (Ecelbarger is very good); (2) (Cedar Mountain (Krick is very good); (3) Brawner’s Farm (Hennessy and Gaff are good); and (4) failure to exploit Longstreet’s success on August 30 at 2BR (Hennessy again). I’d close with the inexcusable gap in his front on the Confederate right at Fredericksburg (O’Reilly) which actually could have resulted in a Union success had Reynolds been aggressive and had Franklin and Burnside possessed conforming maps. I’m not saying that Robertson is completely oblivious to all of these events but IMHO they are not adequately/objectively covered in his book. There’s little question that when it came to forced speed in the operational/maneuver realm, Jackson was very good but when it came to finishing things off on the tactical level he was thoroughly mediocre. In all of the above cases save SD, 2BR and Fredericksburg Jackson was acting independently of close control by Lee and in the SD he was actually failing to comply with Lee’s orders. I will credit Robertson with being more objective and.complete regarding Stonewall’s disputes with his subordinates.

        • Rosemary August 30, 2014 / 9:55 am

          “Hagiographic” sent me to the dictionary, “Professor” M. 🙂

  16. chancery August 28, 2014 / 9:13 pm

    Thanks to Professor Epperson and Ms. Winkler for their replies.

  17. Chris Evans August 29, 2014 / 7:24 am

    There are too many to choose from. I can’t pick one.

    Some of my favorites:

    I like Freeman’s ‘Lee’ despite everything it is was and is a massive achievement. Lewis on Sherman and Lewis and Catton on Grant beacuse they are wonderfully written and have great insight on their characters. Luthin on Lincoln because he did a masterful job for one volume and really makes you think and breaks down Lincoln’s life in excellent proportioned chapters. Hurst on Forrest because he makes you think about that complicated character. McKinney on Thomas because he makes you think and has a cool pull out map of the Western Theater in the back of the book and finally Robertson on Jackson but don’t forget Lenoir Chambers as his two volumes on Jackson are magnificent and are very fair and well written.


  18. Chris Evans August 29, 2014 / 8:38 am

    Also I meant to add that other favorites are William Davis on: Breckinridge, Jefferson Davis, and Rhett. They are extensive, well written, and are very informative plus unique.


  19. jarretr August 30, 2014 / 2:28 pm

    While it’s not strictly a Civil War-era biography, I’d have to go with Eric Walther’s “William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War.” It brilliantly highlights the multiple, interconnected personal and political pathologies that melted together to make the mind of a southern Fire-Eater.

  20. Chris Evans August 31, 2014 / 9:28 am

    Also, two wonderful books on James Garfield: ‘Garfield: A Biography’ by Allan Peskin and ‘The Garfield Orbit’ by Leech. Both books have wonderful sections on Garfield’s Civil War (especially Peskin) and bring to life this still rather little understood but very important figure of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.

  21. Lyle Smith September 1, 2014 / 10:48 am

    I haven’t read many Civil War era biographies, but I did thoroughly enjoy reading Darrell L. Collins’ biography of Robert E. Rodes several years ago. He let the sources do the talking, I thought.

  22. Eugene C. Tidball September 23, 2014 / 3:07 pm

    Glad to see that my biography of John C. Tidball got a few favorable votes.

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