Top 5 Most Important Civil War Books: Brendan Hamilton

Last Friday, 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, Brendan Hamilton’s entry in the contest is featured.  It appears below.  Look for more contest entries each Friday for the next several weeks.

Five Most Important Civil War Books (in no particular order):

Peter S. Carmichael. Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R.J. Pegram (1995).

It may seem odd to name the biography of a junior officer as one of the most important books on the Civil War, but what makes this book so significant is not so much its subject as its approach. Carmichael’s first book, Lee’s Young Artillerist represents a fresh way of writing both military history and biography—by weaving its narrative together with social history. I first encountered this book in high school, where military history was simply not taught anymore. My teachers were influenced by contemporary revisionism and firmly believed in the importance of social history. Their past experience of military history was the traditional “battles and leaders” approach, which tells an exciting story but seems to lack any relevance in terms of really understanding why the Civil War occurred and how it shaped the future. Lee’s Young Artillerist demonstrates just how critical an understanding of military history can be. Carmichael provides readers with a sympathetic, microcosmic view of one man’s experience of war. We learn Pegram’s socio-economic and cultural background and how these influences affected his perspective and motivation for fighting. This work inspired Carmichael’s later, landmark study, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion and no doubt influenced many to view the Civil War through a different lens.

William A. Frassanito – Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (1975).

The Civil War was first war to be widely photographed. Yet despite the frequent reproduction of Civil War era images in books and magazines, it still took over a hundred years before any scholar really saw their potential as historical documents. Before Frassanito, authors and publishers generally reprinted the images without questioning the accuracy of the photographers’ early captions. In Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, Frassanito reveals that photographers took tremendous liberties with their work and how they later presented it to the public. He spent countless hours scouring the vast Gettysburg battlefield for the actual locations of photographs. His subsequent analysis of the images unveils a great deal about the battle, its participants, and its aftermath. There is still a great deal work to be done in unlocking the many secrets of Civil War photographs and, with the dawn of the internet, greater access for historians of all levels to do so. The Library of Congress now provides their collection of photographs in full, intricate detail for free public access on the web. Photographs that appear the size of a postcard in a book can now be expanded to incredible resolution in the comfort of one’s home. PHDs, amateur historians, and reenactors have all been discovering new information from these old images, and in doing so, continuing Frassanito’s legacy.

John J. Pullen – The Twentieth Maine (1957).

Pullen’s classic regimental history has stood the test of time—it proves that regimental histories can be both great literature and great history. Its influence both on the genre of regimental history and Civil War writing in general cannot be overstated. Without the influence this book, it would be hard to imagine Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prixe-winning novel, The Killer Angels, and Civil War buffdom’s subsequent obsession with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Above all, The Twentieth Maine is a work of tremendous passion; Pullen seamlessly interweaves his own prose with the words of the soldiers themselves, painting a dramatic, four-year tale of tragedy sprinkled with moments of surprising beauty.

James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1998).

Many Americans assume that conscription was as significant a factor in the Civil War as it was in Vietnam. Though the draft was used during the Civil War, it was nonetheless largely a volunteer war. Why, then, did so many of its participants willingly face the horrors of combat? In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn tackles this question by claiming the upper classes manipulated the masses, turning their deep class resentments on “the enemy.” Like many anarchist intellectuals, Zinn is ironically elitist. He views the average American as an idiot drone in the grip of the diabolical “elite white overclass.” What evidence does Zinn actually have to back up his Civil War claim? Another scholar’s opinion—of World War II! In stark contrast, James McPherson tackles this same, incredibly complex question with all the care and diligent research of a responsible historian. In his research, McPherson read thousands upon thousands of letters and journal entries written by Civil War soldiers during the war. He found that soldiers across class lines generally had a sophisticated understanding of the political issues at stake. Some men even formed debating societies within their units. McPherson also cites the election of 1864, when soldiers in the Army of the Potomac actually voted against both a beloved former commander (McClellan) and the possibility of an earlier end to hostilities. They voted to continue the war even after their romantic notions of it had been dispelled. McPherson’s dedicated research and intelligent evaluation of primary source materials helps piece together the real motivations of common soldiers, as alien as they might seem to us today.

Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

This novel is both the king of Civil War novels and a deserving part of the canon of American literature in general. It continues to shape how people perceive the common soldier’s experience of combat. Though Crane had not yet experienced combat when he wrote this work, Civil War veterans often remarked on the novel’s raw accuracy. “The youth” has become an archetype for the green soldier unprepared for the harsh realities of war. Crane’s manner of describing the two sides of the battle using metaphors of natural forces and machinery is also still implemented by both novelists and historians.

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