27 December 2010 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 19 comments

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.

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Comments

  1. Mon 27th Dec 2010 at 3:07 pm

    I am glad to see that Catton’s AmericanHeritage Picture History is getting such top billing. It was one of the first Civil War books that I received as a kid, and I looked at it so much the binding broke! (Lucky for me, I recently found the original 1960 first edition of eBay and bought it immediately; I like the look of the older edition compared to the more recent editions.) This book provided me with a really solid foundation on the Civil War and opened the way for my longstanding interest in the war.

  2. Phw
    Mon 27th Dec 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Agree on #1! It was one of my first CW books and I, too, read it till it fell apart, although I bought one of the newer reprints to replace it. Fantastic overview and engaging for youth interested in the “wah.”

  3. Don Hallstrom
    Tue 28th Dec 2010 at 10:16 am

    Hello Eric

    I really enjoy lists like this. They make you think and it is interersting to see what others think. It also opens up the possibility of other “Lists” posts. Best biographies, best multiple volume series, etc. I was most interested what books on battles/campaigns would be inlcuded in Glenn’s and your lists.

    I’ve read both of the books on Glenn’s lists. I do think Landscape Turned Red is Sear’s bet book and agree it at least needs to be discussed to be on any list as this. I also enjoyed Furgurson’s Chancellorsville although I didn’t feel as strongly about it as Glenn did.

    I’ve not read 3 of the battle/campaign titles on your list, however I own them all and plan on reading them at some time. I fully agree with you on Perryville and Return to Bull Run. Both are wonderful and I wish Hennessy would take up the pen again.

    If I was to put together any list like this, my list would have to include something from Gordon Rhea. I understand the the classification of his books as a multi-volume set. However, although best read together, they can also be read as seperate titles. His first volume Battle of Wilderness should be considered a masterpiece. Once he finishes the last volume, the 5 volume study will likely be the final word on that campaign for a very long time.

    Happy Holidays
    Don Hallstrom

  4. Mike Peters
    Tue 28th Dec 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Eric,

    I would add Frank O’Reilly’s “The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.”

    Mike

  5. Gary Emling
    Tue 28th Dec 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you for including Mr. Nolan’s “Lee Considered…” in your list. If being the greatest general in US history were a crime, then “Lee Considered” would be the reasonable doubt that exonerates Mr. Lee. Your comparison to a legal brief is right on the mark and I think it is about the only effective way to make the points presented in the book.

  6. Tue 28th Dec 2010 at 5:16 pm

    The best campaign study that I have ever read is “Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West.” Analytical and well written, in my opinion it is every bit as fine as the campaign histories that you have mentioned. Another excellent campaign history is “Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It” by William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III.

  7. James W. Durney
    Tue 28th Dec 2010 at 11:15 pm

    An excellent list and one of the best I have seen. I do not disagree that any of those books can be on a top 12 list. We have the same 1st ACW book, it was my main Christmas gift when published.

  8. Brad Snyder
    Tue 28th Dec 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Eric.

    I find this to be a very thought-provoking post. Even with the parameters you have outlined, I find it difficult to compose a list of my top 12 Civil War Books. In part, that is because I am nowhere as well-read as you and Professor LaFantasie and, more importantly, because there is so much subjectivity involved in opining what is a top book. What I think is a “top book” may not make someone else’s top 100. I enjoy reading books about topics/subjects that are either obscure or that have not been exhaustively covered. I would rather read a book about a battle or event that I know little or nothing about rather than read yet another book about battles, campaigns or events that have already been fairly well covered. Thus, rather than offer a competing list of “top 12 Civil War” books, I can only comment on books that jump out at me when I scan my bookshelves, i.e. some of my favorites.

    Having said that, I have especially enjoyed and would heartily recommend the following:
    1. “Stealing the General-The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor” by Russell S. Bonds.

    2. “Glory Enough For All-Sheridan’s Second Raid and the Battle of Trevillian Station” by Eric Wittenberg—my favorite Wittenberg book.

    3. “Covered with Glory” by Rod Gragg–regimental history of the 26th North Carolina.

    4. “Stoneman’s Raid 1865″ by Chris J. Hartley

    5. “Mosby’s Rangers” by Jeffrey Wert

    Those are just a few that I have really enjoyed.

    Brad

  9. John Foskett
    Wed 29th Dec 2010 at 11:34 am

    Eric: I join James in saying that your list is one of the best I’ve seen. (In a subjective world, I disagree with much that is on Glenn’s, although when one is limited to 12, even with the post WWII/multi-volume/series/biography exclusions, disagreement is inevitable). The AH book was my first, as well (which I took to grade school one day and dropped in the snow to take up a snowball fight). I think Jane is on to something regarding the Shea/Hess book. That volume produced a distinct change in the way battle studies are written. As for the “Lee Considered” genre, I would add “Little Phil”. Reassessing Lee became popular. Reassessing northern icons has gotten far less attention.

  10. Chris Evans
    Wed 29th Dec 2010 at 11:47 am

    Nice list. I own 9 of the 12 books listed. I agree about the battle studies mentioned.

    In my list Peter Cozzens would have a title or two in it such as his wonderful books on Chickamauga and Iuka/Corinth.

    Catton’s book has always been one of my favorite introductions to the war as his maps are first rate and so fun to look at. Also, if bound in one volume his trilogy on the Army of the Potomac is one of my favorite single books with its lyrical, moving prose bringing that star crossed army to life.

    Chris

  11. Wed 29th Dec 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Eric,
    Great list. Here are my top 12. I share five of your books on my list.

    12. Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 by Steven E. Woodworth

    11. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse by Joseph Glatthaar

    10. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac by Jeffry D. Wert

    9. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens

    8. Unfurl Those Colors: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign by Marion Armstrong

    7. Combined Operations in the Civil War by Rowena Reed

    6. American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War

    5. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas by John J. Hennessy

    4. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command by Edwin B. Coddington

    3. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson

    2. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War by Herman Hattaway

    1. Taken at the Flood: Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign by Joseph Harsh

    Regards
    Jim Rosebrock

  12. Ken Noe
    Thu 30th Dec 2010 at 10:37 am

    Thanks Eric. It’s an honor find myself in such company. Ken

  13. Mike Peters
    Thu 30th Dec 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Eric,

    I have read 10 of your dozen and agree. Don’t have McPherson’s “Battle Cry” or the American Heritage Picture book. Surprising huh?

    Mike

  14. Lyle Smith
    Thu 30th Dec 2010 at 10:06 pm

    My first Civil War book as a child was a picture book collection of the Kurtz and Allison lithograph prints of Civil War battles. As a four and five year old, I made my mother keep checking it out from our public library until she eventually bought the book as a gift for me.

    As far as making a list of top 12 books… I’m not well-read enough yet to have a 12 best book list. I’ve read a few of the books on the list (Pfalz, Hennessey, and Sears), and glad to see them there.

    One book I’ve read that I don’t see on the list, and will stick my neck out for is David G. Martin’s Gettysburg July 1 book. For whatever reason, I love this book (even if it did have some problems when published). It’s dispassionate and unembellished in its analysis, and I love that. There’s little puffery of regiments or brigades involved. Mr. Martin, in his austere manner, simply tries to provide all the evidence that is out there, along with the myriad arguments surrounding the events of the day; before drawing his own conclusions and allowing the reader do so as well. Love it.

    I also just finished Mr. Wittenberg’s and Mr. Petruzzi’s “Plenty of Blame to Go Around” and it seems to come from a similar place as the Martin July 1 book, i.e. heavy on the evidence and the variety of arguments surrounding the evidence, and also presented in an unembellished, as is sort of way. Definitely the way I like to have specific historical events presented to me in writing.

    Interestingly, out of all the Sears books of Civil War campaigns my least favorite is his Antietam book. I actually think his style of writing comes together the best in his Chancellorsville book.

    Anyway, thanks for the two top 12 lists. There’s plenty of new there to read.

  15. R. Darryl Holland
    Fri 31st Dec 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Rules or no rules, Douglas S. Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenants” is my favorite, and a copy of one of “the three” can be found on my bedside table most days of the year. And now? A list of my “Top 12″ favorite Civil War books? I did not say they were the best, only my favorites…. Here goes….

    1. “Lee’s Lieutenants,” by Douglas Southall Freeman.
    2. “Stars in their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign,” by Shelby Foote.
    3. “A Pictorial History of the Confederacy,” by Lamont Buchanan [My 1st CW book].
    4. “Heroes in Blue and Gray,” by Robert E. Alter [My 2nd CW book].
    5. “Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg,” by Richard J. Sommers.
    6. “Terrible Swift Sword,” by Bruce Catton.
    7. “To Appomattox,” by Burke Davis.
    8. “Like Men of War,” by Noah Andre Trudeau.
    9. “Hard Tack and Coffee,” by John B. Billings.
    10. “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” by MacKinlay Kantor [My 3rd CW book].
    11. “The Stonewall Brigade,” by James I. Robertson, Jr.
    12. “The 24th Virginia Cavalry Regt,” by R. D. Holland [My only published CW book].

    And my Top three “Books on Tape?’ 1. “Stars in Their Courses,” by Foote; 2. “Landscape Turned Red,” by Sears; and 3. “The Last Full Measure,” by Shaara.

  16. Dan
    Fri 31st Dec 2010 at 6:39 pm

    A lot of really great works listed here!
    My own choices:

    1. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”
    2. Albert Castel’s “Decision in the West”
    3. Joseph Glatthaar’s “General Lee’s Army”
    4. David Detzer’s “Donnybrook” (some might consider this part of a trilogy on the early part of the war, but I think it stands alone as its own work)
    5. Noah Ann Trudeau’s “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage”
    6. Stephen Sears’ “Chancellorsville”
    7. Steven Woodworth’s “Six Armies in Tennessee” (somewhat shorter than these others, but still, to me, the best condensed treatment of the Chick-Chatt campaign)
    8. William C. Davis’ “The Cause Lost” (technically an essay collection, rather than a monograph, but anyway…)
    9. Steven Woodworth’s “Jefferson Davis and His Generals”
    10. Charles Dew’s “Apostles of Disunion” (some qualifiers: 1. quite short, 2. deals with secession, rather than the war; still, it’s eye opening—at least, it was to me—about the causes)
    11. McPherson’s “For Cause and Comrades”
    12. Paddy Griffith’s “Battle Tactics of the Civil War” (you may not agree with his conclusions, but at least he offers a different viewpoint)

  17. Lee
    Sun 02nd Jan 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I agree with Brad that “Covered With Glory,” Rod Gragg’s history of the 26th North Carolina, is a great book. Another great regimental history is “The Battle Rages Higher,” Kirk C. Jenkins’ book on the 15th Kentucky Infantry (Union).

    I’ll also second “The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy” by William C. Davis, mentioned above by Dan. While some of the opinions and judgments Davis offers may be debatable, the essays are very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  18. Martin
    Mon 03rd Jan 2011 at 11:37 am

    Great topic to begin the New Year. Here are my top 10 favorites:

    10. “The 111th New York Volunteer Infantry: A Civil War History”, by Martin Husk
    9. “Army of the Potomac” series by Bruce Catton. First set of books I ever bought.
    8. “Landscape Turned Red”, by Stephen Sears
    7. “Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee & Civil War History”, by Alan T. Nolan
    6. “Brave Men’s Tears: Iron Brigade at Brawner’s Farm”, by Alan Gaff
    5. “Gettysburg: A Journey in Time”, by William Frassanito
    4. “Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas”, by John Hennessey
    3. “Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg”, by Richard Sommers
    2. “Gettysburg: the Second Day”, by Henry Pfanz
    1. “Embrace an Angry Wind”, by Wiley Sword

  19. Colin woodward
    Mon 03rd Jan 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Glatthaar’s “General Lee’s Army” deserves a place on everyone’s list. Here’s some that I think also deserve mention. If they aren’t the best, they should all be read by Civil War historians: Royster’s “Destructive War.” Gallagher’s “Confederate War.” Sam Watkins’ “Company Aytch.” Linderman’s “Embattled Courage.”

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