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