What are the five most important books you have read on the Civil War? Why is each important?
This week, Mark Kucinic’s entry in the contest is featured. It appears below. Look for more contest entries each Friday for the next several weeks.
The Dilettante’s Guide to the Five Most Essential
Civil War Books
Let me first acknowledge that I am a devoted bibliophile (so many books, so little time) with catholic tastes that could broadly be categorized into; novels, biography, travel essays, economics, philosophy, Darwinian Theory, international relations, the American West, Civil War and WW II. More importantly, unlike some, I do not collect books that I do not soon read. There are two books in my library that I have owned longer than a month that I have yet to complete; J.M. Keynes “The General Theory” and V.S. Pritchett’s “Complete Collected Stories”. The first is not easy and the second is very large, but lends itself readily to small bites.
Picking the “five most important books” could be quite easy; it would be the first five I read because otherwise I would have been discouraged from reading any more on the subject. However, once passing that threshold some prioritization becomes necessary. One of my first precepts in purchasing a book is to, as George C. Marshall famously instructed, “Avoid trivia”, but the most important injunction in selecting the five books is that they, taken as a whole, encompass as much as possible, the literary (in the narrow sense) genres available on the subject matter and its scope. Where two books, however outstandingly, cover essentially the same topic (Foote and McPherson for instance) one needs to be eliminated. Another characteristic is that the books selected should, within the scope of their subject matter, be thorough. That means footnotes, bibliography and MAPS. There are no 250 page, weekend-at-the-cabin diversions here. Lastly, the list is, of necessity, brutally exclusionary and, to the extent that my reading on the subject matter is certainly not as extensive as others, of necessity, arbitrary or, less pejoratively, personal.
“The Civil War, A Narrative”, Shelby Foote, Three volumes. From this all else follows. If it wasn’t for Ken Burns and Shelby Foote my essentially pedestrian interest in the Civil War would have remained just that. A magnificent opus that is both thoroughly entertaining and, his detractors notwithstanding, thoroughly accurate. Although breaking my rule (that didn’t take long) on footnotes and bibliography, no one would ever indict this work for lack of thoroughness. I have owned my set for nearly 20 years and have reread the entire three volumes twice.
“Return To Bull Run, The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas”, John J. Hennessy. The obligatory “campaign book”, Hennessy does a masterful job, derived no doubt from his career as NPS historian and administrator to recount the campaign and battle that lead to Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. The book is notoriously adept at illustrating Clausewitz’ concept of “the fog of war” without, as is so often the case, attempting, in his characterization of some of the Union generals’ actions, to invent for the benefit of the OED, another term for the word “stupid”. I also chose this book instead of the many excellent books on Gettysburg because, well, (okay, you can call me arbitrary) this subject is far less well covered (I actually learned something) and I have yet to see the movie.
“Fighting For The Confederacy, The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander”, edited by Gary W. Gallagher. Alexander, who served under Johnston and Lee as Chief of Ordinance before becoming Longstreet’s Chief of Artillery, was one of the more intelligent, insightful, and knowledgeable staff officers to have served on either side. His wide ranging activities included training an incipient Confederate Signal Corps, establishing an efficient intelligence network for determining Union troop strengths (boy, could McClellan have used him!!), and designing and modifying artillery projectiles. His apparent deficiencies in grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (apparently it wasn’t taught then at West Point) have been more than adequately corrected by Gallagher without hindering a style similar to one of Twain’s better travelogues (describing the notoriously vain Gen. Beauregard, “. . . quick & alert, of fine carriage & aspect . . . his hair was black, but a few months afterward when some sorts of chemicals & such things became scarce it began to come out quite gray) coupled with Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” for, unlike the fictional Pierre Bezukhov, Alexander actually does wander most of the famous battlefields, encounters an extraordinary range of characters from the most famous to Flintlock Fauntleroy and is unsparing of his observations and evaluations. The best first person account of the Civil War I have read.
“April 1865, the Month That Saved America”, Jay Winik. Winik, a sometime journalist and high-level former government staffer provides a well-reasoned and insightful look into the end of the Civil War and why it did not devolve into an interminable guerrilla conflict. It provides an invaluable cautionary tale on the cupidity of events and the fortunes of history.
“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”, Daniel Walker Howe. Okay, perhaps not STRICTLY a Civil War book, but presumably the more intelligent among you must surely have asked, assuming you understood that history was more complex than your high school civics’ teacher had lead you to believe, “why?” Howe, an Oxford and UCLA Don won this year’s Pulitzer in history for this latest contribution to the Oxford History of the United States (McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” won an earlier award under the same auspices). A cultural and economic tours de force, it is probably now considered the definitive book on the ante bellum situation and a more thorough although differently biased (Howe does NOT like Andrew Jackson) work than its predecessor to that claim, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s “Age of Jackson”.
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