I recently held a contest where readers had to answer the following questions:
What are the five most important books you have read on the Civil War? Why is each important?
Ian Spurgeon was the winner. His contest entry follows. The best contestant entries will be appearing here at TOCWOC over the next few Fridays. Judge for yourself whther or not I made the right choice!
Any attempt to rank or place value upon a contribution to a field-whether it be a job performance, literature, a movie, or a commercial product-depends heavily upon the wording of the question. Too often people associate questions of importance with matters of personal taste or popularity. The survey here ponders books of great importance. An important Civil War book need not be a well-liked publication or even a great piece of scholarship. Those factors aid in a book’s achievements, and most of the books on my list realize both marvelously. An important book, however, must be influential. Some of the most influential Civil War publications are neither popular nor considered accurate today. It must have made some type of recognizable contribution-even if that contribution carries baggage.
With such considerations in mind, I offer the first book on my list-Edward A. Pollard’s The Lost Cause. Few today have read Pollard’s work, but one would be hard pressed to find an image of Civil War history not influenced by it and the school of thought that bears its name. Published in 1867, The Lost Cause was among the first efforts by a former Confederate to justify the South’s actions in print after the guns fell silent. Portraying the South as a victim of sectional animosity and Northern bullying since the Revolution, Pollard’s work paved the way for a massive effort to romanticize the Old South and sanitize the reason for secession. The Lost Cause Myth, as it has become known, downplays slavery, emphasizes states’ rights and tariffs, deifies Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and minimizes the military success of Grant. Long discredited by academic historians, the Lost Cause Myth nonetheless continues to influence countless Civil War “buffs”-and even those with only a paltry interest in the war. Arguably no other book has had such an effect, in spirit if not in substance, to Civil War historiography than The Lost Cause.
The second book on my list counters Pollard’s in about every way. Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs remains a popular book to this day, and is highly prized not only as great history but as a fine piece of literature. The book is amazing in both its substance and in its own story of construction. Written in the final months of Grant’s fascinating and tragic life, the book proved an instant best seller and provided his family with much needed finances. But that is not why it is great. From a generation full of inflated egos and published among myriad self-serving, post-war reminiscences, Grant’s book offers a startling, straightforward, and humble analysis of the Civil War. Void of romanticism, Grant portrayed the hard and cold facts of combat, and described his opponents-and himself-in simple and very humanly terms. Grant’s Personal Memoirs continues to educate and enchant readers today.
Number three on the list is Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil War. Unlike the other books on this list, this publication is a collection of essays and primary documents. Some of the greatest scholars of Civil War history contributed to this book, and the fact that Stampp-one of the most influential American historians of the twentieth century-edited it makes the work a true gem. From commentary on state rights by Arthur Schlesinger to contemporary criticism of Black Republicans by the New Orleans Daily Crescent, The Causes of the Civil War offers an easy to use, invaluable reference for serious historians and enthusiasts alike. It should be a central part of every Civil War book collection.
The fourth book on my list is the least popularly known, although it is recognized as a monumental work by serious historians. Dudley Taylor Cornish was among the countless World War II veterans who used the G.I. Bill to pursue a university education. The influx of average Americans into academia helped shake off the often stuffy, traditional, and elitist approach to history of previous generations. Cornish helped lead the charge for broader historical study with his work The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Before its publication in the mid-1950s, the story of black Americans and the Civil War largely had been ignored, or pushed aside as a footnote. Cornish was not the first to write of the black Union experience (for instance, Joseph T. Wilson published The Black Phalanx in the 1880s), but he was perhaps the most important figure in making it a vital part of Civil War study. No person today can speak of the Civil War without recognizing the active contributions of black Americans. This is no small part due to The Sable Arm.
Finally, the book to round off my list of the five most important works on the Civil War is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Academic historians may cringe at the thought of fiction being placed above excellent, high-level scholarship. But with a topic as broad as the Civil War, the effect a popular publication has on the public cannot be ignored. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and crafted into a well-received feature-length movie, The Killer Angels is often credited by Civil War “buffs” as a key reason for their passion for the war. Beyond sparking an interest in thousands of people, the book has helped shape the image of notable Civil War figures. Joshua Chamberlain is almost a household name now, and James Longstreet’s reputation has been rejuvenated. The book got people talking-got people thinking about the Civil War. As a bridge to the public, The Killer Angels has no peer. It must be included in any discussion of important Civil War books.
Limiting the vast array of Civil War books to five, under any classification, is a daunting task (as is describing that list in 1,000 words). There is no right or wrong answer. One may not agree with the selections above, but consensus is not the goal. The discussion itself helps us establish what the war means to us today. And that is a noble venture.
Ian Michael Spurgeon
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