Friday, December 9, 2011

American Civil War readings

T again.  This was going to be a photo-laden entry about a recent day trip out to the Civil War battlefield at Antietam (or Sharpsburg), Maryland on a warm Thanksgiving weekend, but perhaps first, I thought I might provide a little background on my interest in the war. 

I was once upon a time a voracious reader and serious follower of all things related to the American Civil War.  I still remember my first Civil War book, Glenn Tucker's High Tide At Gettysburg, which came out in in 1958.  It told the story of the Gettysburg campaign from the Confederate perspective. I found a copy of it in a stack of my father's old college books when I was about 12 or 13.  I think that particular copy fell apart at some point as I carried it around from place to place. The book is lively written, straightforward, and carries a definite pro-Southern slant.  I was hooked, and since then, I have probably read a library's worth of books and visited battlefields from Arkansas to Georgia to Pennsylvania.  Over the years, however, my interest has waned a bit.  It is in part because those interests have expanded and become more varied (the British in the years leading up to and including World War One is my latest kick), but I would put forth that the larger reason is that everyone and their brother over the past 20 years seems to have written a book about the war (there are some 60,000 books on the Civil War), and there appears to be very little that has not been covered ad nauseum by someone.  The internet and the continued discovery of primary sources have been a big part of that, but I point to Ken Burns and his excellent PBS series from the early 1990s for the latest spark.  Mr. Burns poignant story with its solid narration, quotes, period music, and memorable photos  made Civil War history popular again after it had lost much of its appeal in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, he may have made it too popular.  The Civil War became cool again and now it seems every Tom, Dick, and Harry writes on the war, and they write often.  Sometimes Tom, Dick and Harry do well; other times, not so well.

Okay, so I'm being a little facetious.  Despite the incredible number of books written on our "war between the states," there are some good works still being put out, and while I may not read as much as I once did, I do some favorite authors I would recommend to anyone interested in the subject.  It is, after all, a fascinating period to study.  New sources continue to be discovered and people are finding new and innovative ways to analyze the war.  Indeed, just a few months back, it was announced that census data from the period suggests the total number of casualties from the war was not the 620,000 long thought, but perhaps as many as 850,000   Folks, today that would be more than 6 million dead.   While a goodly percentage of those deaths were from disease, it does go to show we Americans certainly know how to kill each other if need be.  Perhaps that is one of the primary reasons so many of us continue to buy those books.

Speaking of books, I was about to mention a few to consider before I went off on that slight tangent.  To make it easier, let me break them down into a few categories:  First, for an overview of the war, Bruce Catton's series from the 1960s, which can be found in paperback in just about any used book store or on Amazon for a buck or two, and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, which won for him a Pulitzer Prize.  McPherson is recognized as one of, if not the premier Civil War author out there today, penning a number of studies ranging from Lincoln to the lives of the soldiers to slavery to individual battles.   I seem to recall him writing somewhere that he was inspired by Mr. Catton.  There is also Shelby Foote's massive 3-volume history of the war (The Civil War:  A Narrative).  Mr. Foote, who died several years ago, became famous on the Ken Burns PBS series you might recall.  His narrative is a good read, but not as scholarly McPherson's work and lean a bit towards the Southern side of the conflict.  It is also, by the way, over 2,000 pages long.

For campaigns and battles in the eastern theater of the war, I would recommend several authors:  At the top of the list would be Stephen Sears.  You cannot go wrong with his books To the Gates of Richmond (the Seven Days Campaign), A Landscape Turned Red (Battle of Antietam), Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.  He is a fantastic storyteller and is certain to keep your interest even if you don't really care for military history, particularly with Landscape.  These were pivotal battles in the eastern theater of the war in 1862 and 1863, so there are many books on them (especially Gettysburg); I would rate these as the best of the lot, probably because they tell the stories effectively without getting too technical and manage to weave in the larger picture for the reader.  The Shenandoah Valley also was an important area of conflict in the east, particularly in 1862 and 1864.  For the 1862 affair, check out Peter Cozzen's Shenandoah 1862:  Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign or Russ Mohney's Stonewall in the Valley, which covers the same campaign.  If you read both, you will get a different perspective because Cozzens is a little less enamored with Thomas Jackson than Mohney and many other historians. I think his research is better, although Mohney's book may be an easier read of this famous campaign, which is still studied by various militaries.   For the 1864 Valley campaign, I like Jeffry Wert's From Winchester to Cedar Creek.  For the other major 1864 campaign in the east, the epic struggle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, try Gordon Rhea's series, which looks at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor.  These are a bit more on the real military history side of writing, but are well written.  Last, being a North Carolinian, I like Rod Gragg's study of the Fort Fisher Campaign (Confederate Goliath), which closed the Confederacy's last port of Wilmington, NC in 1865.

The western theater has over the past 20-25 years seen an explosion of battle and campaign studies, many of which are quite good.  This theater of the war was long neglected, largely because most people were more interested in reading about the east and its more famous characters...the Robert E. Lees, Stonewall Jacksons, and George B. well as more well-known battles (Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Bull Run, the Shenandoah Valley, etc).   The more you read of the western theater, however, the more you will understand it was where the war was ultimately won or lost depending on your perspective.  While perhaps a little too detailed for many readers, Peter Cozzens has written a number of well-received books on some of the key battles and campaigns in the west, including Stone's River (No Better Place to Die), Iuka and Corinth (Darkest Days of the War), Chickamauga (This Terrible Sound), and Chattanooga (Shipwreck of their Hopes).   The Chickamauga book is probably my favorite of the lot.  It is a well-researched study of a  confusing and bloody battle south of Chattanooga in the woods of north Georgia.  It also provides a platform for a fascinating study of the relations amongst generals in battle on both the Union and Confederate sides.  In short, it is a bit of bad soap opera in the midst of two days of fighting that led to some 35,000 casualties.   For a look at William Tecumseh Sherman's pivotal Atlanta campaign, check out Albert Castel's Decision in the West.  Exhaustively researched, tightly written, told in the present tense (an unusual, but very effective technique I thought), and offering some occasionally controversial analysis, it is also one of my favorite campaign books.  Last, but certainly not least, I would offer up a book I have mentioned before:  Wiley Sword's Embrace an Angry Wind: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville.  Some of Sword's analysis is contentious, but the book reads like a novel.  Highly recommended. 

There are a number of other campaign studies I might recommend, including something for the Trans-Mississippi theater, but this is probably a long enough list.  And, I haven't even talked about any biographies, books covering the homefront, politics, individual soldiers and units, or grand strategy.  That might take several more pages, and by then, I would certainly bore you completely to tears.  A few short thoughts though.  If you are interested in the common soldier, Bell Wiley's The Life of Billy Yank and The Life of Johnny Reb, although first published in the 1940s, are both still considered classics.  James McPherson tries to get at why the soldiers fought in For Cause and ComradesEmbattled Courage by Gerald Linderman looks at how the stark and deadly realities of combat changed how soldiers viewed combat, comrades, the enemy, and civilians.  The last few I will mention have to do with the rather widespread (and often little-known) "war within a war" in the South, starting with a short book I read in graduate school by Phillip Paludan called Victims:  A True Story of the Civil War.  It is about an incident in the mountains of North Carolina where Confederate soldiers, in a frustrating hunt for deserters and Unionists, executed 13 men and boys.  It is a fascinating mix of social and military history.  William Trotter's Bushwackers:  The Civil War in the North Carolina Mountains gives a lively account of the whole story about what went on in western North Carolina during the war without getting too bogged down in the details.  A hint:  It was not pretty, but not nearly as bad as what went on in Missouri and Kansas.  For a taste of that unsavory affair, check out Thomas Goodrich and start with Black Flag:  Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-65.  I am still looking for a good book on Civil War grand strategy, but I hear an Army War College faculty member, Dr. Carol Reardon, has one coming out sometime next year, so we shall see....

Okay.  I think with that I will stop.   Stay tuned for some visits to Civil War battlefields.

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