February 2009 Civil War Book Notes

Those that can’t write, Review!

February 2009

James Durney


Jacquie LeBel’s question on TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog has inspired this month’s column.  He is newly retired and wishes to study the Civil War but he is unsure where to begin.  I have seen this question many times and always try to respond along with many others.  However, I have never tried to lay out a comprehensive reading plan about the war.  This time, I want to try to do that.  Here are the books, the reason and the sequence for this study plan.

1. Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War by Gary W. Gallagher.  This is not a history of the Civil War but a look at how we see the history of the Civil War.  The author provides a clear concise honest look at the schools that write history and the condition they are in.

2. Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth R. Varon.  This is a history of the idea that the United States of America was not indivisible.  This history makes the ideas of 1861 & 1862 seem more reasonable.

3. Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession by Russell A. McClintock.  The election of 1860 was the final insult for those that wanted disunion.  One by one, Southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.  War was not preordained but was the option both sides chose.  This book builds on “Disunion!” and shows how the war came about.

4. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher.  This is the best one volume military history of the war in existence.  It is comprehensive, balanced and connects the theaters and campaigns.  Both major and minor battles are covered.  It is available in paperback but try to find a hardback volume on the secondary market.

Things are not as simple now and a number of alternate study paths become possible.  We have looked at the contemporary views of the war, how the idea of disunion took root in America, choosing war over disunion and read a one-volume military history.  You should have an idea of the sequence of campaigns and battles at this time.  We can proceed to look at battles in detail.  From this point, you can skip from subject to subject but I would try to read the books within a subject in sequence.

Gettysburg like it or not this is the battle that gets the most press and paper.  The largest battle ever fought in North America, it may or may not be the turning point of the war or the South’s last chance at victory.  We do know the most detailed book on the battle is The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command by Edwin B. Coddington.  However, Coddington, as this book is called, can be a daunting place to start.  For that reason, my recommendations for Gettysburg reading are:

1. Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears has almost everything Coddington has in a more readable form.  Sears is one of our best authors and his forte is the Eastern Theater.

2. Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg by Eric J. Wittenberg & J. David Petruzzi.  This is the best study of what J.E.B. Stuart did during this campaign and his reasons for doing so.  Fair and balanced it is a necessary read after you have a good idea of the battle.

3. ONE CONTINUOUS FIGHT: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 by Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi & Michael F. Nugent.  This is an excellent military history of the fighting following Gettysburg and the problems in the pursuit.

4. Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign by Kent Masterson Brown.  Why two books on the retreat from Gettysburg?  This small campaign has major repercussions for the balance of the war.  Every student of the war needs a complete understanding of what happened.

5. Gettysburg–The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz.  This is the best and most detailed account of the critical second day of the battle.  All of Pfanz’s books on Gettysburg need to be read but this is the most important one.

The battles of Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia are what most people consider the American Civil War.  Most of the ink is on these battles, there are four or five books published on this subject for every book published on the other theaters.  This was the most important theater during the war and has maintained that status to this day.  The battle books presented here are in the sequence that the battles occurred.  There is no reason why you cannot skip battles or read these in any sequence you wish.

1. Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War by William C. Davis.  This book has been in print for years and has never been surpassed as a history of the wars first big battle.

2. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens is the best choice.  You need to read this to understand the how & why of The Seven Days.

3. Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles by Brian K. Burton.  This is the most balanced of the books on the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

4. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas by John J. Hennessy.  In 1862, the armies fought on parts of the Manassas battlefield.  Another book that has been on the market for some time but is still the best for this battle.

5. Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle by John M. Priest.  This is not a popular choice but we are looking for a balanced book that covers the battle at a reasonable price.  The best choice is The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman’s Definitive Study of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam by Joseph Pierro.  However, this book is $100 and should only be bought by serious students of the battle.  The other better (best?) choice is the books on Antietam by Joseph Harsh.

6. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly.  This is another detailed study of what went wrong and why.  A very balanced military look at this battle.

7. Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears.  This is one of his best and most overlooked books about this critical battle.

8. Read as an introduction Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864 by Noah Andre Trudeau.  The Overland Campaign belongs to Gordon C. Rhea.  His four books are the best available and the fifth is expected in 2009.  Look for The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-6, 1864, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern May 7-12, 1864, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 & Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864.

9. The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau covers the siege and finial battles for Petersburg.  This broke the Rebellion and Lee’s Army leading to:

10.  Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox by William Marvel.  This book proves that good history never fades.  It is the best history of the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The West is anything that is not the Army of Northern Virginia vs. The Army of the Potomac and East of the Mississippi River.  Four armies fought over this area, three of them the Army of the Tennessee, The Army of the Cumberland and The Army of Tennessee are the subject of books.  The Army of Mississippi is limited to Vicksburg Campaign.  The main armies each are the subject of good army histories.

1. Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 and Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly is the best history of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.  While almost 40 years old, they are the gold standard for reading about this army.

2. Days of Glory: The Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1865 by Larry J. Daniel is an excellent history of this army.  Read after the Connelly books, they will provide an excellent view of the war between these two armies.

3. Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 by Steven E. Woodworth is a history of U.S. Grant’s army and the conquest of the Mississippi River.

4. Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 by Kendall D. Gott is an excellent history of the early days of the war.

5. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by Edward Cunningham is the best history of the most important battle in the West and is required reading.  This is the best book on the battle.

6. Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy by Richard M. McMurry.  This is the classic account of one of the most important campaigns during the war.  Sherman’s campaign is regarded as ensuring Lincoln’s election.

7.  Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea by Noah Andre Trudeau.  The Union armies in the West came under Sherman’s command.  This is an excellent book on a campaign that still excites emotions.

The Trans-Mississippi is everything west of the Mississippi River.  In 1861, this was Missouri gateway to the West.  Much of 1861 and part of 1862 was spent is securing the state.

1. Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It by William Garrett Piston is an excellent look at the situation in Missouri and this important battle.

2. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West by William L. Shea covers the largest battle fought in the area.  These two battles set the tone of the war in the area and created problems that existed for years after the war.

Miscellaneous but important books that need to be read.  These books either are overviews or are incidental to the story.  However, the subjects are important, come up in chat rooms, and always create questions.

1. The United States created the United States Colored Troops during the war.  These men wrote a little known but important part of our history.  Like Men of War by Noah Andre Trudeau is a comprehensive history of the USCT and the battles they fought.

2. Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau covers the war from Appomattox to the end.  This is a neglected area of study but one that needs to be understood.

3. River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War by Andrew Ward.  This is one of the most emotion-laden subjects during the war and this is the most balanced book about it.

This list may seem over whelming and discouraging at first glance.  However, you have decided to study one of the most complex events in our history.  Each month new books are published on the Civil War.  Trudeau once observed that writing about Gettysburg is a cottage industry.  Books, magazines, blogs, discussion groups abound.  Round Tables meeting monthly are available in most areas.  The battle parks, federal and state are open and well worth visiting.  Amazon lists thousands of books on the Civil War, read the reviews and pay attention to the reviewer’s name.  Find who you can trust and see what they are reading.

Above all, this is supposed to be FUN!  Do not allow your thirst for knowledge to discourage you.  Most of us are very happy to share, those that will not are not worth talking with.

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One response to “February 2009 Civil War Book Notes”

  1. Dan Avatar

    A very good list, although I can’t believe you left off Peter Cozzens’ Tennessee trilogy—“No Better Place To Die”, “This Terrible Sound” and “The Shipwreck of Their Hopes”—or Wiley Sword’s Nashville Campaign tome, “Embrace An Angry Wind”. And for my money, Albert Castel’s “Decision in the West” is a far superior, and more engaging, piece on the Atlanta Campaign than McMurry’s. Oh well…

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