Books and subjects in need of updating

by Rob Wick on September 17, 2007 · 0 comments

As someone knee-deep into writing his first book, I have a new respect for those who have gone before me. Even though I’ve been researching the life of Everton Conger for almost 12 years now, my study has only scratched the surface. Much of that comes from the fact that very few letters written by or to Conger exists. Without personal letters, it’s very hard to give a full picture of someone’s life and thoughts. A lack of material is just one obstacle to writing a book—always a draining and at times tedious exercise.

All this is prefatory to today’s topic—books of the Civil War in need of updating or subjects where new ones are needed. In the first category comes my favorite generalized history of the war—Battle Cry of Freedom. It’s been almost 20 years since James McPherson brought this book out as part of Oxford University Press’s Oxford History of the United States series. Rightfully winning the Pulitzer Prize in history, the book set the standard for Civil War scholarship. In spite of what some persistent critics would say, beginners looking for a good synthesis of the war could do no better than to pick up McPherson’s work.

But the book needs serious updating, and a precedent in the series exists. Robert Middlekauff’s book The Glorious Cause detailing the Revolutionary War was updated just this year. Brought out in paperback instead of the more expensive hardcover, it makes use of the latest scholarship since its original publication. BCOF should be next. Why isn’t it? I wish I knew.

Believe it or not, there is a subject dealing with Abraham Lincoln that needs some new blood. Individual biographies of Lincoln’s cabinet members are scarce and outdated. While I liked Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals there is actually a better book available on the cabinet as a whole, albeit a much older one. Burton Hendrick wrote Lincoln’s War Cabinet in 1946. I think it’s better simply because he doesn’t clutter up the story in the same way that Goodwin did by including the “women’s perspective” on things. I also think Goodwin overplayed Edward Bates as a “rival”. Bates hasn’t had a biography since Marvin Cain wrote Lincoln’s Attorney General: Edward Bates of Missouri in 1966. The most recent biography of Edwin Stanton was Benjamin Thomas and Harold Hyman’s The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War which was written in 1962. His predecessor, Simon Cameron hasn’t been written about since 1966 when Erwin Bradley’s book Simon Cameron: Lincoln’s Secretary of War came out. John Niven wrote a biography of Gideon Welles.

Salmon P. Chase and William Seward both have more recent works written about them. Niven’s Salmon P. Chase came out in 1995 while John M. Taylor wrote William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand in 1991. Even the minor characters in the cabinet need their life story told.

Who knows? Once I get Conger’s biography written I may tackle one of these gentlemen. I’m sure there would be much more material available. Of course, at the rate I’m going with Conger, I may be too feeble to type!


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