The Sunday Question: Influential Civil War Books

Some books are more influential than others in shaping or reshaping our understandings of history or the direction of historical inquiry. Given the number of books published about the Civil War era, surely that must be true of that topic. Share with us the three (and only three … make some tough choices, folks) titles published from 2000 to 2014 that have most shaped your understanding of the period. Explain your choices.

35 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Influential Civil War Books

  1. John Foskett December 7, 2014 / 11:53 am

    This is pretty challenging, for obvious reasons. Here are mine:

    (1) Reading the Man, by Elizabeth Pryor. Pyor allows us to figure out who Robert E. Lee really was, without either hagiographic veneration (Freeman) or reading a brief for the prosecution (Nolan, Connolly).

    (2) Abraham Lincoln and White America, by Brian Dirck. Dirck presents Lincoln as typical of the era for a man of his age, race, and geographic upbringing – bringing new appreciation for his emancipation achievement.

    (3) Combo entry (okay, a slight cheat) of Failure in the Saddle by Dave Powell and Work for Giants by Tom Parson. Both of these books toss Kryptonite at the notion that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the military version of Clark Kent.

    There are a lot more, and likely many that others would say are far more important.

    • Lyle Smith December 7, 2014 / 4:43 pm

      I’ve read the Powell book on Confederate cavalry during the Chickamauga campaign. It’s a very good read.

      I don’t think it actually paints Forrest in as bad as light as you argue. Although I agree it should educate those who think Forrest was the greatest cavalryman ever or however it is hey put it. Forrest didn’t lead his cavalry in the ideal way as far as screening movements or reconnoitering maybe where he should have. That said, Powell clearly demonstrates that Forrest was some kind of exceptional warrior who would ride far and wide to punish the enemy. Despite Forrest’s lack of military training or lack of understanding about what he should have been doing in the saddle, his aggressiveness often accomplished what he was supposed to accomplish, which would be discovering the enemy’s whereabouts. And it was his aggressiveness and daring do that Bragg and most everyone recognized that made Forrest indispensable to the Confederate cause.

      Maybe he was like Custer, but without the education, elitism, and with much better luck.

      • John Foskett December 8, 2014 / 7:59 am

        Oh, I’d say it knocks Forrest down a few pegs. Dave is critical of his information gathering and transmittal before the battle and of his handling of the fighting on September 20. Add Parson’s book to the mix, as well, and we don’t get the mythical warrior which the story tellers have crafted .

        • Lyle Smith December 8, 2014 / 3:46 pm

          Yes, I agree about the information gathering and transmittal problems. Mythical cavalryman, I would agree… but I still think he was some kind of warrior.

          • John Foskett December 8, 2014 / 5:23 pm

            I’d have no problem giving him a weapon and having him join me in a fight. But I wouldn’t dump a large body of troops into his command clutches. To quote Inspector Callahan, “Man’s got to know his limitations”.

          • Dave Jordan December 8, 2014 / 6:24 pm

            Although Forrest may not come off well in Powell’s book, I believe that he (correctly) fixes most of the blame on Joe Wheeler for the failure of the Confederate cavalry in the campaign.

          • Lyle Smith December 8, 2014 / 9:01 pm

            I agree with you Dave.

          • John Foskett December 9, 2014 / 8:36 am

            To respond below, Dave Powell clearly puts more blame on Wheeler. Wheeler, however, has come down to us with a reputation far less glorious or intimidating than that of Forrest. Saying that Forrest outperformed Wheeler in the campaign is like saying that a guy who hit .260 outperformed a guy who hit .230. Bedford had further to fall, and did.

    • chancery December 8, 2014 / 7:01 pm

      “Reading the Man” is a good choice.

      I’m trying to get started on the universally admired “Killer Angels,” but can’t get past the early paragraph describing Robert E. Lee (I’m paraphrasing from memory) as a man who had never owned slaves and was personally opposed to slavery.

      • John Foskett December 9, 2014 / 1:32 pm

        I have a strong suggestion, if you’re looking for a fictional treatment of Gettysburg which avoids all of the pitfalls in Shaara’s book – Ralph Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg. Much better, less stereotyped portraits of leading actors and a superior description of the combat. His sequel on the Overland Campaign, Hell or Richmond, is equally good.

  2. M.D. Blough December 7, 2014 / 12:51 pm

    Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson-A comprehensive history that integrates the social and military issues.
    Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (Civil War America)-Makes one thing about the conventional wisdom about this iconic figure.
    Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War by Charles B. Dew.-Powerful statements about the reasons for secession in the words of those sent to states considering secession to persuade them to join the rebellion.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 7, 2014 / 3:59 pm

      Margaret … I believe some of those titles were published before 2000. Just sayin’.

  3. jfepperson December 7, 2014 / 1:30 pm

    1. General Lee’s Army, by Joseph Glatthaar—This was not only a good read, but a highly informative one that told me a lot about the Army of Northern Virginia.

    2. Confederate Emancipation, by Bruce Levine—A very good rendering of the story of the halting effort to use black soldiers in the Confederacy.

    3. Shenandoah Summer, by Scott Patchan—Filled a large gap in my understanding of 1864.

    I have acquired, but not yet read, a number of books that may well make this list once I read them. One in particular is the Thomas biography by Wills.

  4. Al Mackey December 7, 2014 / 6:12 pm

    1. James Oakes, Freedom National. It puts emancipation in context, dispels misconceptions, and shows that Lincoln and the Republicans were freeing slaves and striking against slavery long before the Emancipation Proclamation.
    2. Richard McMurry, Atlanta 1864. It makes the Atlanta campaign and the choices made understandable. It cogently explains why Davis chose Johnston, why he relieved Johnston, and how and why Johnston failed. It also gives a better understanding of Hood.
    3. Ethan Rafuse, McClellan’s War. It dispels the Stephen Sears-induced picture of Little Mac as a traitorous incompetent.

    • John Foskett December 8, 2014 / 10:33 am

      Good point on Rafuse’s very good book. Of course, it doesn’t (nor was it intended to) justify all of McClellan’s actions from a purely military perspective, including his various failings on the Peninsula. Instead, the book does a nice job of explaining the background sources for McClellan’s views about proper prosecution of the war, etc., as opposed to some of the more simplistic “treason”-style evaluation that has often been the approach when talking about McClellan. Rafuse also properly points out that the poisoning of the Lincoln-McClellan relationship was a bit of a two-way street. All that said, I don’t think that the book shows McClellan ending up on the right side of the executive/military split in which the latter must be subordinate to the former. And then there are those pesky “letters” (or whatever they are) from Mac to Ellen. Those are tough to overcome.

      • Al Mackey December 8, 2014 / 1:05 pm

        Not trying to be a McClellan partisan, nor is Ethan, John, so really don’t need to overcome letters or show Mac on the right side of anything. Just trying to understand the man, and I think Ethan’s scholarship allows much more understanding of the man than Sears’.

        • John Foskett December 8, 2014 / 5:34 pm

          I agree, Al. I have, however, seen others cite the book as evidence that the many criticisms of McClellan are unwarranted – it is not. For example, and I’m working from memory without the book at hand, Rafuse chews Mac a new one for the Galena frolic – while at the same time crediting him with certain conceptual accomplishments on the Peninsula. My point about the “letters” is that in the end it’s my view that a lot of the good work by Rafuse, Harsh, et al. to take a “second look” at McClellan refines the analysis (sometimes in his favor), but doesn’t really alter the ultimate conclusion. None of that takes away from the importance of the book.

          • Al Mackey December 8, 2014 / 9:17 pm

            John, I see it as an excellent, balanced view of McClellan, which means it will refute several criticisms of McClellan–those that really aren’t supported by the record. I think it depends on what the “ultimate conclusion” about McClellan is. If it’s that McClellan was incompetent or traitorous, then in my view it does alter it. If the ultimate conclusion is that McClellan lacked the proper respect for the President, then it doesn’t alter it; however, it does temper it in some instances.

          • John Foskett December 9, 2014 / 8:48 am

            Al: By “ultimate conclusion”, I mean a few things. (1) Did McClellan lack proper respect for the executive and its role in this republic/democracy in deciding military strategy, as well as related (e.g., emancipation) issues? Without question. The “letters”, etc. make that irrefutable. (2) Did McClellan allow “personal” biases to cloud his decision-making in transferring the A of the P north in August, 1862 and in assisting Pope? Again, without question. (3) Was McClellan a capable field commander who demonstrated that he had the qualifications to steer the Union war effort to victory? “No”. One need only look at his handling of the Seven Days and post-Antietam to see that (and yes, one can come up with “explanations” for each tactical/operational shortcoming by Mac in those campaigns, but at some point the sum is greater than the parts.) I don’t believe that Rafuse assails these conclusions so much as he explains the why/motivation. He capably refutes the notion transmitted in some Civil War writing that McClellan was treasonous, wanted the CSA to prevail, etc. He nicely ties McClellan’s views to his “Whig” upbringing. As I’ve indicated, we agree that this is an important book which adds needed corrective to the historiography.

    • James F. Epperson December 9, 2014 / 10:09 am

      I almost included this book, but I wanted to avoid the lengthy discussion you two have had 😉 Also, I am not as convinced of some of his points as I think Al is, but I totally agree that it is an important, fresh, and necessary new look at Mac

      • Al Mackey December 9, 2014 / 11:26 am

        Jim. you’re just prejudiced against Mac because he originally came from Penn State country and got into the war from Ohio State country. 😛

        • John Foskett December 9, 2014 / 2:07 pm

          Al: As a long-time detester of the Big (Ten/Eleven/Fourteen/Integer), you’ve given me additional fodder here. He also ended up being Governor in Rutgers country and ran a railroad in Illini country. Hmmmm.. 🙂

      • John Foskett December 9, 2014 / 1:28 pm

        As a veteran of this blog yourself, you know what happens to me when the Little Napoleon subject comes up. Red cape/bull charging. 🙂

        • James F. Epperson December 10, 2014 / 11:07 am

          John, I’ll second your post from 12/9 @8:48. I agree that Rafuse’s book has a lot of good things in it, but he also misses some points, IMO.

  5. Joshism December 7, 2014 / 9:28 pm

    “Southern Storm” by Noah Andre Trudeau about Sherman’s March to the Sea (2009). Very well organized, loved the day-by-day maps, some deep analysis from diaries (especially the weather), good mythbusting.

    “Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign” by Peter Cozzens (2013). The best book of a good author. Seemed like an excellent and fair treatment of the campaign (including some of the closely related preceding events like the Romney Campaign) and was immune to the Stonewall mythos.

    “Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study” by Alfred Young III (2013). Not exciting reading, but seems to me like one of the most groundbreaking studies in years on any Civil War topic – and one that badly needed some deep analysis.

    Dishonorable mention: “Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee” by Michael Korda (2014). I had high hopes and was very disappointed.

    • jfepperson December 8, 2014 / 5:39 am

      I’ll second the listing of “Southern Storm.”

  6. Mike Crane December 7, 2014 / 10:32 pm

    David Blight’s Race and Reunion – Set the study of memory and the war on its current path. All books on the topic implicitly, or explicitly address him.

    Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering – Opened a lot eyes to the human costs of the war for both soldiers and their families.

    James Oakes’s Freedom National – Excellent argument for revisiting the meaning of Republican policies prior to and during the war.

  7. Stephen Graham December 7, 2014 / 11:22 pm

    1. The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865, by Mark Wilson. Gets to the true heart of the war: the ability of the US to mobilize an effective and equipped force.

    2. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, by James Oakes. An excellent concise history of the process of emancipation.

    3. James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War, by John Quist and Michael Birkner. Too much of the story of the coming of the war focuses on either the secessionists or the Republicans.

  8. Dan Weinfeld December 8, 2014 / 7:44 am

    1. Reluctant Rebels. Kenneth Noe uses sampling to examine and analyze characterisitics and motivation of post-1861 enlisters. Shows us the extent to which Southern whites were not exactly rushing to ‘rally round the flag.’
    2. Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical analysis of the ANV looks at Lee’s soldiers from a variety of perspectives (economic, slave owning, demographic, etc) and, among other things, puts to bed the “rich man war’s, poor man’s fight” myth (at least for the ANV).
    3. Year of Meteors: Douglas Egerton’s very enjoyable old-style narrative of the 1860 election year (much better than his Reconstruction book).

  9. Lee Elder December 8, 2014 / 8:36 am

    I can only list three? Yikes!
    First I’ll try to BS my way out of trouble: Shelby Foote’s trilogy The Civil War gained traction after his wonderful contributions on television shows and the like. Bruce Catton’s series of three is extraordinary (for me anyway) and I believe the works of Douglas Southall Freeman, while written long ago, made impressions on researchers and other readers of Civil War literature that continue to this day.

    However, none of the authors above made the biggest impression on me among Civil War books. The biggest impression, by far, was made by the first book I read on the subject, Noah Andre Trudeau’s Gettysburg: A test of Courage. I had visited the battlefield briefly once and decided that I wanted to know more. The book made the place come alive for me. This book hooked me on the Civil War.

    As a former newspaper man who has transitioned to the public relations world, Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge In History & Memory struck a chord. The squabbles among former Confederates and between Confederates and Federals after the war smacks of a good, old fashioned PR war. Imagine what it would have been like to give those old boys Facebook accounts and Twitter capability!! Early in Reardon’s book there are two phrases that all Civil War students should read and keep in mind. Quoting Lieutenant Frank A. Haskell on page one, Reardon wrote, “…two powerful forces frame the way we recall past events: the objectivity of history — the search for “truth” — and the subjectivity of memory, which shape perceptions of that “:truth.”” The second quote, is on page two, “…he suggested that “the eye that never saw the battle” exercised great power in choosing the memories deemed worthy of perpetuation. As a consequence, we know less about what really happened on July 3 at Gettysburg than history purports to tell us.” For me, those are powerful words. This book is exhaustively researched and very well written.

    Finally, at the risk of appearing to be a shoe polisher, Brooks Simpson’s book on Grant at the end of the war and start of Reconstruction partially reshaped my understand of that period and gave me a different kind of insight on our society today. The book, Let Us Have Peace, it is excellent.

    This post is too long, but you asked us to back up our answers, so I did what the professor asked.

  10. Lee Elder December 8, 2014 / 8:40 am

    Okay, second to last graph, I should have added three letters and said, “…reshaped my understanding…” I’ll understand if the professor dings me for the gaff.
    Lee Elder

  11. jclark82 December 8, 2014 / 4:07 pm

    1. Reluctant Rebels-as stated previously it shows the south was far from unanimously eager to join the army but shows also how the later enlistees/conscripts responded to the war. Highly important.

    2. McClellan’s War-I’m not a McClellan partisan, but it gave me a new understanding and appreciation of the man. While it isn’t the work of a fanboy, it gives depth to McClellan that is much needed.

    3. The Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry (US)-this is a personal one for me as a Kentuckian. It’s good to see a book about the Union cause in Kentucky and not just another tired trope on the Orphan Brigade (whom the Sixth bested at Stone’s River) or John Hunt Morgan.

  12. chancery December 8, 2014 / 6:57 pm

    1. “Race and Reunion,” by David Blight, well known to the readers of this blog.

    2. “Freedom National” with its adjunct, the Scorpion’s Sting,” by James Oakes, read on Al Mackey’s excellent recommendation.

    2.5 “Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, by Harold Holzer. Fascinating not only about Lincoln’s preparation, the speech, and the reaction, but also about the subsequent campaign and the slavery question generally.

    3. “A World on Fire,” Amanda Forman. the British role in the civil war. It’s a big thick book, and some reviewers suggested that it’s 200 pages too long. But the trick is to accept that you’re not going to read it in one or two sittings; relax and enjoy the journey. it addition to full accounts of the principal actors (especially Lord Lyons, the British envoy, and Seward} it’s full of illuminating and entertaining vignettes of bit players, some of which are found in the extensive and frequently discursive footnotes, which are worth reading.

    Also, without the date cut-off, I would have included “The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics Paperback”, Don E. Fehrenbacher. A somewhat dense read, and parts (such as the discussion of federal subject matter jurisdiction and argument why Taney’s full decision is _not_ obiter dicta) would be challenging for a non-lawyer. But it does a marvelous and persuasive job of disentangling the facts and history of the case, as well as the political arguments which created its context.

  13. Buck Buchanan December 10, 2014 / 8:51 am

    1) Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi by Michael B. Ballard (2010)

    An excellent study of what I believed has been an under researched campaign…especially when compared to events during 1863 in the East. It gives a very even handed accounting and is not the hagiography of Grant that many other histories have been.

    2) Gettysburg by Steven Sears (2004)

    After writing what I said about 1) above, why like a book on Gettysburg? Simple, I believe it to be the best 1 volume telling of the campaign with value to both serious historian and casual enthusiast. I “assigned” this as the source reading for a group I took to Gettysburg last April which had seeveral levels of knowledge and it was well received. It also has the best telling of the actions at Culp’s Hill which I have read.

    3) George Henry Thomas by Brian Steel Wills (2012)

    To be frank, I am not a big fan of biographies (sorry Brooks) but I thoroughly enjoyed this telling of one of my personal heroes and a man who has been underappreciated, I believe, in recent scholarship. While not a brilliant general, he seemed to know when to make the inhertently right decision and stick with it regardless of what others thought. I also come at it from having been a US Army Infantry officer, I sure know a lot of folks would second guess some of my decisions…but they don’t know what I knew when I made the decisions I made. Much the same can be said for Old Pap…not the least was because his provate papers were destroyed after his death.

  14. msb December 11, 2014 / 1:06 am

    I’ll second those above who cited “Confederate emancipation” and especially “Freedom national”, and will add McCurry’s “Confederate reckoning”. Does Faust’s “Mothers of invention” make the date cut? It’s terrific.

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