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Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors turned some of the questions about Civil War Interactive’s recent top 50 Civil War books list into an interesting poll. He asks the readership of Civil Warriors to email him a list of their top 5 Civil War books of the last 20 years, those “that have done the most to transform our understanding of the field of Civil War scholarship since that that book appeared.” I’ll be sending in my own email, but I thought it might be fun to post my picks online for others to see. I encourage my fellow Civil War bloggers to do so as well. This might lead to an interesting range of ideas for good book purchases, providing a mutually beneficial list of said books.
In a second post on Thursday, Brooks asks readers to keep those votes coming. I suggest the same. This is an excellent chance for both bloggers and readers to expand their knowledge of the war in a positive way.
Without further ado, I present my own list of the what I believe to be the five most influential Civil War books of the last twenty years*.
Fellow blogger Mark Grimsley’s book was only a recent purchase for me and I only finished reading it about a week ago. With that said, it was one of the best books I’ve read on the Civil War in recent memory. Working with a trinary classification of Southern civilians, Grimsley shows how the Union war effort moved inexorably from the conciliation policy of 1861 through a “pragmatic period” and on to the “hard war” of 1864 and beyond. Grimsley’s reassessment of Sherman’s controversial March to the Sea was a particularly interesting and enlightening portion of the book. I hope to have a review of the The Hard Hand of War up within the next week or two. I will discuss this work in more detail there.
Much has been said about Harsh’s lengthy and superbly researched look at the Maryland Campaign. The author looks at the campaign from the view of Lee and McClellan. He avoids hindsight, using only those materials available to each general as they made their decisions about how to proceed next. Taken at the Flood continues where Harsh’s earlier work Confederate Tide Rising leaves off. He explores the idea of this Confederate “incursion” (a word Harsh uses in both books) into enemy territory with thorough coverage. Some, in a similar vein to the criticism of Cap Beatie, have said Harsh is a poor writer, but I do not agree with this assessment. In any case, experts on the Maryland Campaign will almost always cite Taken at the Flood (and the companion volume, a massive appendix of sorts to the book, Sounding the Shallows) as a must have. I agree and wholeheartedly endorse this one.
I’ll simply add here an excerpt from my review of the book: “I am very glad I picked this particular volume to start seriously reading unit histories. To everyone who recommended that I read the book, I thank you. I truly believe this book would appeal to a wide range of readers, even those who are not necessarily Civil War “buffs”. In the same way Glory is an excellent, far-reaching film, Mother, May You Never See The Sights I Have Seen has the ability to reach out to a larger audience (without Glory’s attendant historical errors). I plan to recommend this book to those that ask me why I’m so interested in the Civil War. It hooks you and doesn’t let go, much like a well-written novel. Although I’ve read only a couple of unit histories, I get the feeling that few I read in the future will be as good as this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
–Army of the Potomac, Vol. 3: McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel Beatie
Beatie’s look at the generals of the Army of the Potomac is turning into a truly massive undertaking. After three large volumes, he has only reached early May 1862. Volume 3 of this series focuses on the opening stages of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign up to and including the Siege of Yorktown and the rear guard action at Williamsburg. Beatie’s reassessment of the common view of McClellan’s skills as a general is one of several recent books to rehabilitate Little Mac’s image to some extent. Beatie argues that McClellan was hindered both by Lincoln and Stanton’s decisions to strip him of many promised troops (including Blenker’s Division, Wool’s contingent at Fort Monroe, and McDowell’s I Corps) to no purpose and by the Navy’s failure to support him at Yorktown when similar naval successes had already occurred at New Orleans and Forts Henry and Donelson.
–Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 by Gordon Rhea
This is the fourth volume in Gordon Rhea’s five volume (fifth book coming in late 2009) series on the Virginia Overland Campaign of 1864. Rhea’s book is most important for taking a critical look at the disastrous Union frontal assault on the Confederate lines on June 3, 1864. Rhea concluded the Union losses for June 3 had been wildly overestimated by some authors, and he refutes the title of “Butcher” applied to Ulysses S. Grant as a result of the attack.
*I restricted my list to only those books I’ve read. As a result, my interest in campaign and battle studies becomes obvious. With that said, I’ve put my money where my mouth is and purchased David Blight’s Race and Reunion on Friday.