Top Eight American Civil War Histories (and one Novel)

Top Eight America Civil War Histories (and one Novel)

When I realized my protagonist for Wilderness was an American Civil War veteran (lucky for me, this was pretty much right away, otherwise there would have been a job of work in the rewrite dept) I figured I, as the author, had better know a thing or two about that conflict.  I came to the study of that deep and broad history raw and callow, having only the barest understandings of the shape of the thing, let alone who did what to whom and when.  Fortunately (and with more just blind luck), I started with exactly the right book—James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom—which not only laid it all out in one volume but was compelling enough that it fired not just an interest but an enthusiasm for further study.  So, for a long time—years—I read everything I could get my hands on.  Memoirs and biographies, battle histories and period tactics manuals, diaries and letters and many, many maps.  What follows, in no particular order, are the eight histories (and one novel) that I enjoyed the most.

Why eight?  Well, I had to stop somewhere…

1)      Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.  As I noted above, this is the one that started me off and is still the very best one-volume history (big volume that it is) I can think of.

2)      The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote.  Hard to make a list like this without including this 3-volume epic.  It is narrative history so there’s no sourcing, but Foote’s rich, lyrical prose is so authoritative that you can’t help but trust him.  Brimming and romantic, the Narrative is a real joy to read and one of those ‘landmark’ books where you remember where you were in life when you first read it (for me, in the house on Prospect Street in the dead of winter when we went for nine days without power because of the ice storm that year).

3)      Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton.  I love U.S. Grant like I love Lincoln and I don’t care who knows it.  This book was my first real introduction to the General’s quiet tenacity and, probably, my first introduction to the Battle of the Wilderness.  There’ll be another blog post later on Grant and the Wilderness but this look at the ACW from the opening of the Cracker Line at Chattanooga to the closing of the ball at Appomattox feels surprisingly intimate for such a grand scope.

4)      Gettysburg—The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz.  There are any number of really great Gettysburg books I could have chosen—as a subset of Civil War history, Gettysburg history is an astonishingly deep and varied field—but Pfanz’s work here and in two other books covering the actions of the First and Second Day is ratcheted-in so close you can almost smell the summer grass.  This book is a particular delight not only because it’s well-written but the footnoting is as rich as the narrative, leading the interested reader on a branching path all over the battlefield and beyond.

5)      Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  As with the Battle of Gettysburg, it would be awfully hard not include something on Lincoln in a list like this and Goodwin’s book is magisterial.  On the face of it, a political biography of Lincoln and his cabinet shouldn’t be this gripping and, as in any study of Lincoln’s life, it’s heartbreaking at the end.

6)      The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea.  Considering my novel, I had to have something about the Wilderness on this list, didn’t I?  Rhea’s work here and in his volumes following which trace the course of Grant’s Overland Campaign from start-to-finish, is well-written, thorough and balanced with sound judgments and deep insight.  For the technical details of troop movements in the scenes in and around Saunders’ Field in Wilderness, I always had this book at hand and any errors of fact and timing are wholly mine.

7)      Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.  Another multi-volume set (four this time) the Battles and Leaders books are a series of articles, arranged to chronologically follow the course of the war, and written by the officers themselves.  Even though written many years after the events described (and thus falling prey to the vagaries of memory and old axes still-to-grind), the articles are fascinating looks back by those on the scene at the time.

8)      Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant.  Never mind the fact that, having been outrageously swindled in his post-presidency banking venture,  Grant was penniless and worried for the future financial security of his family as he struggled to finish it.  Never mind the heroism of his final year as he fought to get the thing written while suffering a slow, painful death due to throat cancer.  The Personal Memoirs are not only some of the finest Civil War writing you’re likely to read, they’re also some of the finest writing in the American language.  Concise, direct and plain-spoken, Grant’s great achievement offers insights and regrets (like his ordered final attack at Cold Harbor) that can’t be found elsewhere.

9)      The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara.  All right, so this is a novel but it’s also steeped in historical fact and is a prose-poem to those three days in July at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania which, before the battle, was just a town where the roads came together.  If you read nothing else on this list, I’d urge you to read this.

As always: Most of these titles can be ordered from your local independent bookstore.  Go forth and read.

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