Top 5 Most Important Civil War Books: Larry Freheit

by Brett Schulte on September 5, 2008 · 0 comments

Several Fridays ago, I posted Ian Spurgeon’s winning entry in the Roll Call to Destiny Book Contest.  Contestants had to answer the following two questions:

What are the five most important books you have read on the Civil War? Why is each important?

This week, Larry Freiheit’s entry in the contest is featured.  It appears below.  Look for more contest entries each Friday for the next several weeks.

1. The first book is an overview of the Civil War: “An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War,” by Charles P. Roland, (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991). While this book at 263 pages of narrative is not the longest of those which purport to synthesize the history of the Civil War, it does more than many in fairly covering all aspects and points of view of the war. It is also valuable in that the first chapter discusses the fundamental issues which led to the war, however, the book does not include the post war period. Dr. Roland in his preface states that the book concentrates on the military aspects but also explains “the major political, economic, diplomatic, social, and cultural developments of the epoch…to show their role in the war effort itself” xi.

I believe that Roland gives an unbiased, objective and comprehensive view of the Civil War including its origins. He gives the major positions of the North and South on all important issues leading up to the war without being an advocate or judge. I do detect Roland’s belief that war was inevitable although he never expressly said that. It may be that a logical and coherent presentation of all the actions leading to the war made it seem inevitable-a penalty of hindsight. Commendably, I could find no evidence of sectional biases in his book. He presents well the two, and sometimes more, sides of various arguments but concentrates on the political ones. Roland’s book is the starting point for a serious student to begin his study of the Civil War.

2. James M. McPherson writing in “Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), addresses the revolution conundrum in seven essays. After reviewing various authors’ definitions, he comes up with a working definition of revolution “as the overthrow of the existing social and political order by internal violence” (16). He does, however, spend little time analyzing if it were the “first” or “second” American Revolution accepting conventional wisdom that by denotation and connotation the first one was, in fact, the “American Revolution” although one might argue that this Second American Revolution was more revolutionary than the first since it affected more areas of American life more dramatically. McPherson shows that the war revolutionized national economics because the northern brand of free-labor capitalism triumphed in contradistinction to the South’s slave-based, plantation agricultural economy. The old economic base in the South was destroyed while the industrial revolution accelerated in the North.

In addition, the war definitively changed race and labor relations in the South contrary to some historians’ asseverations. McPherson cites statistics to demonstrate that the war made significant changes in the status of blacks vis-à-vis the antebellum South. He finds that some of these anti-revolution historians can be charged with “presentism” because they do not analyze the changes made through the eyes of participants. While many gains were lost or diminished, when compared with the antebellum South, those gains were still substantial. Thus although the revolution was arguably “unfinished” and still continues, it was indeed a social and economic revolution for blacks. It is fair to say given all the evidence of contemporary views as well as historians’ analyses, the war qualifies as the Second American Revolution under virtually all definitions and criteria of measurement.

3. “Lincoln and His Generals” by T. Harry Williams (New York: Gramercy Books, 2000), takes as his theme how Abraham Lincoln won the war for the North and in so doing, developed a modern command system. The book is important to show how Lincoln was able to win the war through his generals and how Lincoln’s perspective changed as the war progressed and Lincoln learned how to fight it. Williams evaluates Lincoln’s actions as a war leader by examining how he was able to implement his military strategies within political restraints using the generals of his armies, and how he chose those generals.

Lincoln was the best natural strategist because he saw the big picture from the start knowing that an offensive strategy was needed and that numbers, both in troop strength and in material resources, allowed and required the Union to maintain pressure all along the South’s borders. He believed that Confederate armies, not territory, were the correct objectives, at least in Virginia. While he instinctively knew what had to be done, he was not able to communicate well with his generals, just as his generals, especially McClellan, were unable to communicate with him. Early in the war, Lincoln had to formulate policy, draw up strategic plans, and devise and direct tactical movements, much as earlier war presidents had done.

Lincoln selected General Henry Halleck, an excellent Jominian, as his military advisor and in 1864, when Grant became General in Chief, Lincoln, Grant, and Halleck, as commander in chief, general in chief, and chief of staff, the U.S. had a modern command system for the first modern war.

Lincoln knew early that he must unite the North behind him and hold the Border States. To do so, he must appease political factions, from rabid Republican abolitionists to antiwar Democrats, placate large ethnic populations, and recognize regional interests, by appointing “political” generals. Also, he had to appease the four slave-holding border states by treading lightly around the abolition issue and treating their pro-Union factions well. Jomini would not have understood these political aspects but Lincoln did and in so understanding, won the war.

4. “Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West” by Steven E. Woodworth (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1990), details the command problems President Davis encountered in the west. The counterpart of Williams’ book, Woodworth’s book is important to understand the problems facing Davis which, when he did not adequately address them, lost the west for the Confederacy and therefore arguably the war. While Davis and Lee were able to find many competent officers in the East, Davis had considerable trouble west of the Appalachians finding and keeping general officers who could face the challenges of the vast distances, unfavorable terrain and large, usually competently led, Federal armies. Woodworth spends the most time with probably the fault that caused the most problems for Davis, his loyalty to friends. And of these many friends, the one that caused the most damage was Leonidas Polk which began with his precipitate taking of Columbus, Kentucky, against orders and good political as well as military judgment. Davis did not deal quickly and decisively with the obvious command problems in the Army of Tennessee. His faith in Polk and Hardee along with his probable lack of knowledge of how serious the problem was eventually corrupted the army resulting in the Missionary Ridge disaster at Chattanooga. And by not removing poorly performing generals, no room was left to promote promising commanders like Patrick Cleburne.

Woodworth concludes his book by speculating that many of Davis’s shortcomings even including his fragile health might have been a result of Davis’s insecurity due to his lack of confidence in himself. That he did so well to hold the Confederacy together for four years nearly working himself to death and to have come close to winning shows that his underlying strengths were remarkable but not when measured against Lincoln.

5. “Why the North Won the Civil War” edited by David Herbert Donald contains six important essays by noted historians including, in addition to the editor, Henry Steele Commager, Richard N. Current, T. Harry William and David Herbert Donald. The editor in his forward discusses what historians and writers have posited as the reasons the South lost and the North won. Then the six essays discuss some of the more familiar reasons why the North won. The reasons are shown to be complex in the first essay by Commager, “The Defeat of the Confederacy: An Overview,” which finds that the defeat of the South was not inevitable and the war had many causes. The second essay by Current, “God and the Strongest Battalions,” argues that the material and manpower strengths of the Union were formidable despite the advantages the South had such as geographic area. In the third essay by Williams, “The Military Leadership of North and South,” he finds that “it is the general who is the decisive factor in battle” (39), and that experience, intelligence, education and even courage, while needed, is insufficient–character is most critical. Even though Grant was not as intelligent or educated as Lee or others, he was better able to learn from experience and understand the relationship between politics and the military. Lincoln and Grant, though less educated and experienced than Davis and Lee, won the war since they learned more quickly from experience and unconsciously intelligently adapted or discarded Jominian strategy and tactics as the war progressed. Norman A. Graebner in the next essay, “Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality,” chooses the topic of European intervention vis-à-vis northern diplomacy. He discusses the views of the European community and why it was unlikely that it would have intervened on behalf of the South. The fifth essay by Donald, “Died of Democracy,” finds that southern soldiers and civilians were too individualistic to function well as organized military units or to give up, as civilians, powers to the central government. Southern people could not give up most of their democratic liberties even when faced with defeat in war. The final essay by Potter, “Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors in Confederate Defeat” finds that Davis was the primary factor in the South’s loss especially in comparison with Lincoln. Added to Davis’s incompetence, were the ineffective Confederate congress and the lack of a two-party system. This book is a valuable primer for giving an excellent overview of the reasons for the South losing the war and why the North won.

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