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10 great Civil War books

Last modified: 3/27/2011 12:00:00 AM
I grew up in the segregated South, where my eighth-grade American history teacher was a son of the Lost Cause named Owen North. I recall little of what he taught me about the War Between the States, as he called it, but Mr. North woke my interest in that war.

Now, half a century later, Civil War books fill shelves in my library and boxes in my attic. There are battle books, diaries, letters, memoirs, biographies, collections of newspaper stories, regimental histories, political histories - you name it.

With the 150th anniversary of the war about to begin, now seems like a good time to share a list of my favorites. Because I want to represent several genres (excluding novels, much as I admire Killer Angels and The Red Badge of Courage), these are not quite my top 10. Mr. North might complain that the list has a Yankee lean, but in my heart I've always been a Union man.

The central aspect of the war was the experience of the farmers, shoemakers, mechanics and bookkeepers who suddenly found themselves in uniform. The classic studies of the soldiers' lives, now well over half a century old, are Bell Irwin Wiley's The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank.

To research these highly readable books, Wiley pored over thousands of soldiers' letters, often finding the most vivid information in the 'barely decipherable missives of rustic privates.' His goal was 'to present soldier life as it really was, and not as a thing of tradition.' Other historians, notably Reid Mitchell, have added to Wiley's record, but his books remain the gold standard.

Hundreds of diaries and collections of letters written by individual soldiers have been published. As a New Englander, I especially like All for the Union, the letters and diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island, and A Yankee at Arms, the diary of Augustus Aylings, a Massachusetts soldier who was later New Hampshire's adjutant general.

But if I were going to read only one such book, it would be On the Altar of Freedom. This tells the story of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment through the letters of a corporal from New Bedford, James Henry Gooding. Perhaps because he was writing for publication in a local newspaper, Gooding disclosed little about himself, but until his death in battle he was an eloquent African-American voice in a national conversation dominated by white people.

Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman produced two of great memoirs of the war. Much less known is my favorite, Days and Events, by Thomas L. Livermore, a New Hampshire soldier. Livermore was just 17 years old when he enlisted in 1861. He survived several battles with the 5th New Hampshire and eventually rose to become colonel of the 18th New Hampshire, the last regiment raised in the state.

Although Livermore's memoir was not published until more than half a century after the war, he had written it by 1870. He had a near-photographic memory, and Days and Events is an I-was-there chronicle filled with fine detail and told from a wry perspective.

As he does about everything but sex and a few other topics that might have embarrassed his brothers in arms, Livermore writes with candor about race and slavery. Most northern soldiers went to war with fixed views about these matters - views shaped by the stereotypes in the partisan press. Very few were abolitionists; many blamed the war on abolitionist agitation.

Whether they were right or not, the war did force the country to confront the issue of what to do about slavery. When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed freedom for the slaves of the seceded states, he changed both the cause of the war and the course of history.

This is the subject of Allen C. Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, a compelling account of why and how Lincoln did what he did. Guelzo digs deep into the historical record and writes with verve. Though slightly out of the Civil War timeframe, his Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America is a fitting companion to Emancipation.

As difficult as it is to understand the complexity of the slavery issue, the biggest modern misconception about the war is the popular view that it was glorious and romantic - the Gone with the Wind effect. An excellent antidote to this fiction is Drew Gilpin Faust's recent This Republican of Suffering, a study of how the gruesome death that defined the war affected Americans.

Charles Royster conveyed a similar reality in one of my favorites, The Destructive War. This book shows how key players on both sides came to see the war as a contest that would be settled only by extreme violence. It is built around penetrating biographies of two such warriors - Sherman and Stonewall Jackson - and close-ups of their marches and battles.

During the war's sesquicentennial years, dozens of new volumes will join the hundreds already written about individual battles. How does the non-specialist choose among them? I am a devotee of Stephen W. Sears's series of books on the battles of the East, and I am not alone.

Shortly after Sears's Gettysburg came out a few years ago, I visited that battlefield to look for the location of a particular encounter. The ranger I consulted pulled out the Sears book to help me find it. I asked what he thought of the book. He answered that it had already become his one-volume bible of that critical battle.

Sears has also written Chancellorsville and books on the Peninsula campaign (To the Gates of Richmond) and Antietam (Landscape Turned Red). He is a master of weaving together the grand plans of generals and the struggles of privates to carry out those plans.

The basic infantry unit of both armies was the regiment, usually comprising 1,000 men, though battle and disease rapidly depleted the number. Of the hundreds of regimental histories, I have a soft spot for The Last Full Measure, Richard Moe's book about the 1st Minnesota.

One day nearly 20 years ago, during lunch with my colleague Mark Travis, we discovered that we were both reading this book. We loved how Moe had given the story over to the eloquent voices of the soldiers themselves. The Last Full Measure inspired us to research and write a history of the 5th New Hampshire.

At the other end of the spectrum from the regimental history is the broad military overview of the war. The best one-stop assessment remains James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Published in 1988, Battle Cry supplanted the Bruce Catton histories that many people of my generation grew up with during the 1960s. At 862 pages plus notes and index, Battle Cry will keep you busy for a while. But McPherson is a fine writer who steers a steady course from Fort Sumter to Appomattox Court House.

Mary Boykin Chesnut's diary covers the same span, and it is one classic that should be on anyone's list. Chesnut, a wealthy resident of Charleston, S.C., whose husband was a Confederate officer, kept a faithful record of what she saw and heard. C. Vann Woodward's 30-year-old edition of the diary is still the best, but abridgements are available to anyone interested in less than the complete tour.

For the sake of chronology, perhaps I should have begun my list in Charleston, where the war started. I will end it in Richmond, which, during the spring of 1861, so many Yankee privates believed would soon crumble before their armies, making quick work of the rebellion.

Richmond did fall, of course, but not until four bloody years later. My favorite account of its last days as the Confederate capital is Richmond Burning, by Nelson Lankford. This crisp, fast-paced narrative covers the shelling and capture of the city, its abandonment by the rebel government, the travails of Union officers in Libby Prison and Lincoln's tour of the ruins.

Lankford tells his tale of tragedy and triumph in human terms. To me, this is the most important quality of any Civil War book. Only by getting to know the people who lived and died during the war can we, as modern readers, sense our connection to the most transformative event of our national past.

(Mike Pride of Concord, co-author with Mark Travis of My Brave Boys: To War with the Fighting Fifth, is researching and writing a book about New Hampshire's Civil War experience.)


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