For the 1001st post on this blog, I thought I would follow Prof. Glenn LaFantasie’s lead. Glenn has gone way out on a limb, and has published a list of his top 12 Civil War books of all time. For those who don’t know of Glenn and his work, he is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and Director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University and a good guy.
In creating his list, Glenn set certain parameters, and mine will follow the same parameters. He began:
I’ve only included books published after World War II, which means I’m leaving out a long shelf of good books issued before the second half of the 20th century, some of which still stand the test of time. Out of necessity, I’ve narrowly defined the universe from which I have picked my top dozen.
This limitation rules out any accounts by participants, as well as the works of Douglas Southall Freeman. He continued:
For example, I’ve not included any biographies on this list — an exclusion that some may find indefensible. No series or multivolume works are included here either, which means that Allan Nevins’ majestic “The Ordeal of the Union” (eight volumes), Bruce Catton’s “Centennial History of the Civil War” (three volumes), and Shelby Foote’s very popular “The Civil War” (three volumes) are not to be found below, despite the fact that they all qualify as masterpieces.
For this reason, I have ruled out all four of the excellent volumes of Gordon C. Rhea’s outstanding study of the 1864 Overland Campaign and Cap Beatie’s volumes on the Army of the Potomac.
So, with Glenn’s criteria in mind, here is my list, which, of course, is entirely subjective and represents my opinion only:
12. Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. This book is truly unique: it discovered something entirely new and unknown and then told the story in a very effective fashion. Anyone with even a passing history in the first three years of the war needs to read and understand this book. It completely changed my perspective on a lot of things and showed how good a job the Army of the Potomac did in turning up and using good intelligence to its benefit. The stories of the Colonel George Sharpe and the Bureau of Military Information were untold for far too long.
11. Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. There is, of course, a multitude of books on the Lincoln assassination. In my humble opinion, there is none that does a better job of explaining and analyzing the conspiracy.
10. Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day. This book, by the former chief historian of the Gettysburg National Military Park, is perhaps the finest micro-tactical history of a Civil War battle yet written. With exhaustive detail and fine writing, Pfanz carefully details the sledgehammer Confederate assault on the Union left at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.
9. Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. Professor Reardon focuses on the memory of the Civil War through the microcosm of how the veterans of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg saw their experiences and shows how time distorts the accuracy of memory. This book is a must for those who study Civil War historiography.
8. Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. I’m not typically enamored of social history or of the so-called “new military history,” which incorporates social history as a major element of the narrative for the simple reason that strategy, tactics, and decision-making are what interest me, not social history. However, Ken Noe’s outstanding campaign study is perhaps the best example of the good things about the new military history that has yet been published. By carefully weaving the social history aspects into an excellent battle narrative, Ken Noe has written one of the best studies of the Civil War in Kentucky ever done.
7. John J. Pullen, Twentieth Maine: A Classic Story of Joshua Chamberlain and His Volunteer Regiment. Pullen’s classic study of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry is considered to be the prototype for the modern unit history. It, along with Alan Nolan’s excellent history of the Iron Brigade, set the standard for the rest of us to follow in documenting the history of famous units of the Civil War.
6. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Although it lacks in military detail, as one might expect of a one-volume narrative history of the Civil War, this book is by far the single best one-volume history of the military, political, and economics of the Civil War era yet published. It’s the book I always recommend to newbies.
5. John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. In my humble opinion, this is, hands-down, THE finest one-volume tactical Civil War campaign study ever written. Period.
4. Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. If John Hennessy’s study of the Second Bull Run Campaign is the best tactical study of a campaign, then Joe Harsh’s Taken at the Flood is the finest overall campaign study ever published. This book, epic in scope, covers the entire 1862 Maryland Campaign and completely recast most of the prior art by determining Robert E. Lee’s strategy for the campaign and then analyzing its execution in light of that strategy. Deeply researched and magnificently written, this book deserves a prominent place on the bookshelf of anyone claiming to have an interest in the Civil War.
3. Alan T. Nolan, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Revisionist in scope, and written as a lawyer’s brief, Nolan tackled the greatest icon of the Lost Cause and made him human. This book was critical to my own thinking on Lee and provided me with the role model for one of my own books. You may not agree with everything Nolan says, and some of it may anger you, but you will come away from this book having reconsidered your own positions on Robert E. Lee. At the end of the day, no historian can hope for more.
2. Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Simply put, this book is the Bible for the student of the Gettysburg Campaign. Featuring excellent tactical detail as well as deep analysis, this book is mandatory reading for any student of the Gettysburg Campaign.
1. American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. This is probably the only cross-over from Glenn’s list. He has it at no. 12. For me, it was my first Civil War book, and I still find myself drawn to Bruce Catton’s perfect prose, the coolest maps ever published in any Civil War book, and its gorgeous photography. My eleven-year-old nephew asked me for a Civil War book that would be appropriate for him last month, and this is the one that I chose for him. My first Civil War book is now his first Civil War book, and I know that neither Adam nor I are alone in making that particular claim. I checked this book out of the library literally dozens of times and no other Civil War book has influenced me more than this magnificent classic did. All else pales in comparison.
For what it’s worth, that’s my list. I’d like to invite you, my readers, to make up your own list and publish it here in the comments if you like. The rules are simple: keep it civil, use the same criteria that Glenn established, and have fun.Scridb filter
The Battle of Brandy Station:
North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle
By Eric S. Wittenberg
(November 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, photographs, maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, 271 pp., 2010, The History Press, www.historypress.net, $24.99, softcover.
The History Press continues its Civil War Sesquicentennial Series with another concise history of a major battle in the war — this time the June 9, 1863, fight at Brandy Station between the cavalry forces of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.
Veteran Civil War cavalry author Eric Wittenberg brings his considerable skills to the task of describing this important opening of the Gettysburg Campaign.
The author states that this book is not intended to be the definitive work on the battle. He notes that an upcoming work by Clark B. “Bud” Hall promises to be more comprehensive. That said, Wittenberg’s book is, in this reviewer’s opinion, superior to the 1959 Fairfax Downey account, Clash of Cavalry, which has long been the standard work.
The Battle of Brandy Station presents a compelling narrative of the events leading up to the momentous clash of June 9, along with concise mini-biographies of the leading participants.
Each side’s plans and movements are described and analyzed. The fluid and chaotic account of the fighting is handled with great ease by an author well-versed in the details of cavalry fighting.
Superb action maps by Steve Stanley add greatly to the combat narrative. Photographs and illustrations of participants, period views and modern locales are generously interspersed throughout the text.
Two appendices accompany the account — orders of battle for both Federal and Confederate forces plus a walking and driving tour of the battlefield that includes GPS coordinates. An extensive bibliography is included along with copious endnotes. Unfortunately there is no index.
Wittenberg is even-handed, covering both sides in detail and meting out praise and criticism often to the same individuals. His use of first-person accounts and a well-honed ability to describe cavalry fighting bring the thunder of thousands of hooves, the clang of steel upon steel and the crack of carbines to life for the reader.
As a work on a very important episode in the development of cavalry fighting in the Civil War, this book is highly recommended.
Reviewer: Kenneth Williams
Kenneth D. Williams is writing a book on the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers and is doing doctoral level work in American history. He has worked as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site.
Luckily, the second edition of the book now includes a full index, which is a significant improvement. I had understood that the first edition would have included one, and was disappointed when it didn’t. Fortunately, The History Press heard enough complaints about the lack of an index–including mine–and has now added one.
Thank you very much for the kind words, Ken. I really appreciate it.Scridb filter
This post is a month overdue, and I regret that. I’ve been struggling with symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, and I have been trying to keep from typing as much as possible. I actually have been largely avoiding it, and it’s paid off, because the symptoms–quite painful and unpleasant, by the way–have abated some. The trade-off for that is that there just haven’t been any posts since September 30. Please forgive me for that.
Prof. Joseph L. Harsh of George Mason University passed away on September 13. After overcoming modest roots in Hagerstown, Maryland, Joe dedicated his entire life to the study of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, and wrote an absolutely brilliant strategic analysis of the first Confederate invasion of the north. He then followed it up with two excellent companion volumes that are now the cornerstone of most modern analyses of the campaign. As a young graduate student, Joe helped Jim Murfin write his classic study of the Maryland Campaign, The Gleam of Bayonets.
Unfortunately, Joe wasn’t one to take care of himself, and he lived large. Consequently, he left this world too young, leaving his life’s work unfinished. Before a series of strokes robbed him of the ability to do the sort of deep analysis that he was known for, Joe had started on the accompanying analysis of the Union side. That he won’t get to finish it is really too bad, because his Confederate studies of the campaign needed that bookending to be complete.
I have my own debt of gratitude to Joe Harsh. About twelve years ago, Dr. John Hubbell, then the director of the Kent State University Press, and an old friend of Joe’s, invited both of us to give talks at a Civil War symposium that John had organized at Kent State. Prof. Bill Blair of Penn State University was also on the program (my talk there, by the way, was the first time I ever gave a talk on Stuart’s Ride in the Gettysburg Campaign, and we all know where that led). The night before, the four of us went out to dinner and had a perfectly delightful meal that featured sparkling conversation. I was just finishing up the writing of my book on Sheridan’s Trevilian Raid of June 1864, and we started discussing my conclusions about Sheridan’s conduct of the raid.
I explained how disappointed I was with my conclusions about Sheridan, not the least of which was that Sheridan was a very mediocre general, a pathological liar and a really bad human being. We discussed my conclusions at length, and Joe suggested that I put those conclusions in writing, and that got me thinking. By the time I got home the next day after the seminar, I had my book Little Phil mapped out in my head. The book is intentionally controversial and intentionally not objective, and says so, but a lot of people just don’t get that. We stayed in touch for a while after that dinner, I specifically discussed that with Joe, who loved that idea and encouraged it. Then Joe had the first stroke, and dropped off the radar screen. However, but for my knowing Joe Harsh, that book would never have been written, and for that I will aways be grateful. I likewise will always have warm memories of Joe, who impacted my work in a very real way.
We in the Civil War community are fortunate that Joe worked among us, and that he left such an excellent legacy of great work behind. We’re even more fortunate that Joe passed the torch the way Jim Murfin passed the torch to him. Although Joe’s books are great contributions and a brilliant legacy, his greatest legacy is in the form of his protege, my friend, Prof. Tom Clemens, who is carrying on Joe’s work, just as Joe carried on Jim Murfin’s work. Joe will be missed, but I’m glad to know that his legacy is in Tom’s very capable hands. I hope he rests in peace.Scridb filter
Marc Charisse, the editor of the Hanover Evening Sun wrote an interesting editorial for yesterday’s edition of the paper, addressing the many great books on the Battle of Gettysburg that cram his bookshelves. He gave a list of what he feels are ten indispensable books on the campaign, and J.D.’s and my Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg made the list. Here’s the editorial:
Books battling for attention
By MARC CHARISSE
Posted: 06/13/2010 01:00:00 AM EDT
“Of making many books there is no end,” Ecclesiastes tells us, “and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
Every year about this time, a whole new bevy of Gettysburg books appears on the shelves. And every year, I pack my worn artillery haversack full of weighty tomes to take out on the battlefield.
But the weariness comes mostly when I find that despite all those new titles, there is, to quote Ecclesiastes again, “nothing new under the sun.”
Mostly, I find myself packing those tried and true titles that have gotten me through the vicissitudes of Little Round Top, the chaos of the Wheatfield and the perils of Pickett’s Charge. But last November, I finally found the book that could safely guide me across Gettysburg all by itself.
So out of the dozens of Gettysburg books I’ve perused (or at least skimmed) here’s my top-10 titles for understanding the battle, the ones that deserve a second, or even a third careful reading.
1. “The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command,” by Edwin Coddington, was published more than 40 years ago, and still remains to most experts the best single-volume book on Lee’s 1863 invasion. At 600 pages, plus 200 pages of notes, Coddington isn’t light reading, but it’s the beginning of any serious study of the Gettysburg campaign. The old Confederate controversies are all there, but a century after the battle, Coddington returns needed focus to the Union leadership that did, after all, win the battle.
2. “Gettysburg: The Second Day,” by former chief Park Service historian Harry Pfanz is easily the most beautifully written book I’ve read on Gettysburg. Pfanz weaves together the complex operations and the lives and experiences of the men who fought and died on this bloodiest day of the three-day battle. July 2 had the greatest number of opportunities and disasters on both sides, and Pfanz masterfully shows his reader exactly why it was the decisive day of the battle,
3. “Gettysburg Day Two: A Study in Maps.” I picked up my copy of John Imhof’s 1999 collection of tactical maps in a remainder pile in downtown Gettysburg a few years ago for a few dollars. Expect to pay hundreds if you can find one for sale now. No source beats the detailed tactical evolutions depicted on Imhof’s regimental-level maps. And with some showing movements as little as 20 minutes apart, you can finally visually grasp the unfolding of the second day. “Maps of Gettysburg” by Bradley Gottfried is an acceptable substitute, and it also covers the first and third days, though not in the same glorious tactical detail.
4. “Pickett’s Charge” by George Stewart is hard to follow in places if you aren’t already well versed in July 3 troop movements. But as it shifts its focus back and forth between antagonists, it captures the confusion and emotional truth of war. In the end, it delivers a cohesive picture of the great charge and its heroic repulse, but the book’s real power is in the haunting mental images it conjures of men in battle.
5. In “Gettysburg: A Journey in Time,” William Frassanito changed the way we look at the battlefield. His research into early battlefield photography, and discovery of many new images, tell a timeless story in words and pictures. Besides, the many then-and-now pairings are eerily fun to recreate. Frassanito’s two then-and-now collections, and even his massive “Early Photography at Gettysburg” usually manage to get squeezed into my haversack as well.
6. Pfanz’s “Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill & Cemetery Hill” isn’t quite as wonderful as his “Second Day.” But it’s a solid, highly readable study of this neglected, yet unique and fascinating part of the battle.
7. “Plenty of Blame to Go Around,” by Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi is the best study of J.E.B. Stuart’s famous ride around the Union army. It includes detailed descriptions of the battles of Hanover and Hunterstown, as well as an excellent driving tour. A great book.
8. “Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg” by John Busey and David Martin is a compendium of the losses at Gettysburg, killed, wounded and captured, regiment by regiment, followed by charts and tables of comparative losses. But in its stark, typewritten pages are ultimately poignant records of the human cost of war.
9. “The Gettysburg Gospel” by Gabor Boritt. For many years, Gary Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysburg” has been my favorite book on the November address that redefined the battle and the nation. But Boritt’s work is as thoughtful and a better read. A little less erudite, perhaps, but ultimately a richer retelling of the story.
10. “The Complete Gettysburg Guide.” At last, the one book I’d take to Gettysburg if I could only take one book. It’s got everything – walking tours, driving tours, battle maps, monuments and battlefield lore. In a way, Petruzzi’s new book is too good, pointing out all those cool rock carvings, dinosaur fossils and other hidden battlefield stuff some of us had to spend years to find.
If you see me on the battlefield, I’ll let you take a look at my copy. I’ll be easy to spot – the guy dragging that old leather bag stuffed with books up the side of Little Round Top.
Marc Charisse is editor of The Evening Sun. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m honored to be included in such stellar company. Thanks for the kind words about our work, Marc. It’s much appreciated.
Congratulations to J.D. and Steve Stanley for the inclusion of their excellent Complete Gettysburg Guide on the list, meaning that J.D. and Harry Pfanz to appear on the list twice. That’s really an honor, J.D.Scridb filter
I will be signing books on Saturday May 22, 2010, from 1-3 at the Battlefields and Beyond Military Book Shoppe in Gettysburg. If you’re in the area, please come by and say hello!Scridb filter
The web site for selling my books, which can be found here, has been completely re-designed and re-launched. Best of all, the broken shopping cart function has been fixed, and I can now take orders on-line once more. Please check it out. I welcome feedback and suggestions about how to make it better.Scridb filter
A couple of weeks ago, I gave an interview to to Nate Delesline, III of the Culpeper Star-Exponent regarding my new book on the Battle of Brandy Station, which has now run in the paper. I thought I would share it here.
Examining the Civil War’s Battle of Brandy Station
Nate Delesline III
(540) 825-0771 ext. 110
Published: March 28, 2010
Updated: March 28, 2010
Author Eric J. Wittenberg thinks history buffs and casual readers alike will enjoy his newest work.
“The Battle of Brandy Station: North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle” was recently published by Charleston, S.C.-based The History Press. This is Wittenberg’s 16th book.
“I worked on gathering the research material that makes up the part of that book for the better part of 15 years,” he said.
Before dawn on June 9, 1863, Union soldiers broke through the fog near the banks of the Rappahannock River to ambush the Confederates. The confrontation of about 20,000 troops between Union Gen. Alfred Pleasanton and Confederate Gen. JEB Stuart lasted all day and is the largest cavalry battle ever fought on American soil.
“What I’ve tried to do is to give people a good, solid tactical narrative that gives some details but is not overwhelming,” said Wittenberg, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio. “If people are interested in hearing the soldiers’ own stories in their own words, they will find plenty of that in this book.”
A native Philadelphian, Wittenberg is an award-winning Civil War historian. His specialty is cavalry operations, with a particular emphasis on the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. His works have been chosen for study by history and military book clubs.
Wittenberg, who travels, lectures and regularly leads Civil War battlefield tours, also has authored more than two dozen published articles on the war’s cavalry operations. His work has appeared in Gettysburg Magazine, North & South, Blue & Gray, Hallowed Ground, America’s Civil War, and Civil War Times Illustrated.
Online, Wittenberg runs a blog (Rantings of a Civil War Historian) and moderates a popular Civil War discussion group.
He expressed appreciation to local historian Bud Hall for his assistance in bringing the book to fruition.
“I like to consider myself one of his disciples,” Wittenberg said of Hall’s expertise.
The book also includes maps, illustrations and GPS coordinates to help visitors plan a walking or driving tour of the publicly accessible battlefield areas.
About the book
“The Battle of Brandy Station: North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle” by Eric J. Wittenberg is now available in paperback for $24.99. The book, 272 pages, can be purchased at historypress.net or amazon.com.
More online: Read author Eric Wittenberg’s blog at
The Brandy Station Foundation annual dinner will be held at the Brandy Station Volunteer Fire Department Hall, 19601 Church Road, Brandy Station, Friday, April 9th, beginning at 6 p.m. A wine bar will be featured before dinner at 7 p.m. The cost is $25 and the public is warmly invited. Call Mary Tholand 825-5534 by April 1for reservations. Eric J. Mink will present “Stonewall Jackson in pictures and art.“ Carolyn and Jack Reeder, who have written about the people of Shenandoah National Park, will sign copies of their book about the Civil War letters of William C.H. Reeder.
And there you have it. I had the pleasure of sharing the program with my mentor Bud Hall at Liberty University this past Saturday. More about that tomorrow.Scridb filter
I got my copies of my new book, The Battle of Brandy Station: North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle today, and I have to say that I think that my publisher, The History Press did an excellent job with the book. It’s a handsome volume, and they did everything that I asked them to do.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Clark B. “Bud” Hall, who is my mentor for all things Brandy Station. What I know about the battle, I know because of Bud Hall. Bud’s lifetime of research and intimate knowledge of every bump and every corner of the battlefield has been the source of much of what I know. His research also provided the basis for the excellent maps by master cartographer Steve Stanley that grace the book. Finally, Jim Lighthizer, the president of the CWPT wrote the excellent foreword at the beginning of the book.
In short, I am grateful for the input and assistance of a lot of people, all of whom went a long way to making this book what it is. Enjoy.Scridb filter
I had something pointed out to me that needs to be clarified out here. It’s critical that credit be given when and where it’s due, and that’s the purpose of this e-mail.
As I mentioned the other day, the release of my Brandy Station book is imminent. The book features maps that were done by master cartographer Steve Stanley. The maps are owned by the CWPT, as Steve did them for the CWPT as a work for hire. The CWPT gave me permission to use the maps, provided that they are credited to Steve and to the CWPT. We readily agreed to do so, and that’s how the credit will appear in the book.
What I didn’t realize, but now know, is that those maps were done in conjunction with, and are based upon, the research of my good friend Clark B. “Bud” Hall. I probably should have known that, because in retrospect, it’s obvious. Honestly, I’m not sure why I didn’t realize that, but the fact is that I didn’t. However, nobody had told me that, so they are not credited to Bud in the book, as they should be, and I regret that a great deal. The purpose of this post is to attempt to set the record straight and give credit when and where it’s due.
And that’s wrong. I firmly believe in giving credit when and where it’s due, and it’s due here. First and foremost, Bud has years of research invested in them, and without his expertise, Steve would not have the detail and accuracy that he has in them. Second, the maps were drawn with the intention of appearing in Bud’s forthcoming definitive work on Brandy Station, and I didn’t know that, either. It means that I have unintentionally stolen his thunder. Such was never my intent, and I feel very badly about doing so. I owe a great deal to Bud, who has long been my unflagging supporter and mentor, and the last thing I would EVER want to do is to keep him from getting the credit that he is due. My book would not exist but for him and his work and teaching of me.
It’s also very important to note that I claim absolutely NO credit for the maps. The only input I had was to ask Steve to do one new one that he had never before drawn, which he did. These are Steve’s and Bud’s maps, not mine, and I wanted to be sure that all of you know that. I have asked my publisher, The History Press, to do what it can do to make sure that Bud gets proper credit. Since the book is well into the printing/binding process, it’s too late to add something to the first printing, but we are doing what we can to make sure that proper credit is given where it’s due.
So, when they appear in Bud’s book, you will see them when and where he intended them to be. I am grateful for the opportunity to preview them for you.Scridb filter