My Top Ten List, or Building Your Civil War Library

President Obama and Team of Rivals

“Everyman his own historian,[1]” is a quote bandied about in many classrooms, but it is rarely more true than when it is describing Civil War folk. I use the word folk because I have no wish to begin a Sumter-like flame war among readers. There has been enough discussion in the world at large about buffs, fans, experts, academic historians, antiquarians, battlefield walkers, and fiction writers to fill many more pages than those of a simple blog.

We are what we are, and any change in one’s status is a decision that is strictly personal. Here at ECW, we respect all until given a reason to change our opinion.

I have been writing for this blog for almost a year, have read many book reviews (and written a few) and seen countless references to volumes of Civil War history. This makes me think that perhaps it is time to look at our own libraries. After all, that is where both our money and our mouths are.

My plan is to choose the ten books I think should be in everyone’s personal Civil War library. My choices will reflect my personal views, my experience, and my taste, but I am an easy-going, open-minded sort of person who can graciously lose an argument when truly bested.

I will begin my series with an upcoming review of Bruce Catton’s iconic trilogy Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness At Appomattox. I use the titles because Catton wrote several trilogies about the Civil War, and even I got confused when doing some amazon,com research.

I would like to open this series to discussion and suggestions, and even a post or so if I neglect to include a reader’s nomination for The Best Book Ever Written About . . ..

I am hopeful that this series will help to flesh out our personal libraries, expose us to some new works or hidden gems, and get some good discussion going.

The 100th, or Centennial of the Civil War resulted in the increase of available information on the War. The 150th, or Sesquicentennial, is doing the same. Let us spend our money wisely.

[1] Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review, Vol. 37, Issue 22, 221-236.

6 Responses to My Top Ten List, or Building Your Civil War Library

  1. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pick out 10 books about the war which, itself, is multi-faceted in terms of political and constitutional issues, tactical studies, general works, detailed micro-histories of engagements within campaigns, regimental histories, photographic studies, biographies, etc. Another problem is that while certain tactical studies are very detailed and comprehensive, they sometimes do not read well. Bruce Catton won a Pulitizer Prize for A Stillness at Appomattox. His writing was based principally on regimentals, but he was a good “writer.” It is nigh impossible to achieve that same recognition in a non-fiction history category today by just writing a great factual rendition of a military campaign. You have to be a good writer, too. Not everyone writing good history is a David McCullough whose biographies of Truman and John Adams garnered that honor. Even there, those were biographies and not military studies. So where does that leave the person listing the best books? Do we select on the basis of comprehensiveness and detail or is readability and prose the overriding criterion? Obviously, to have both can make the decision easy, but this is not often the case. For the average reader, a good story is the important thing; but to the Civil War experts or buffs only the most detailed account will suffice. The latter already know the story, and the interest level is already there. It is the detail that impresses them. Analogously, the same is true in art work. A painter of Civil War art is often judged by how authentically the scene is portrayed which is a good thing. But the emotional response to art goes beyond that–it is how the scene is portrayed artistically. To achieve both is to have a work of art that is sublime to say the least and a constant pleasure to view. A final point on “experts.” There are many more so-called experts than one can imagine. Some know so much about the general issues that they are comprehensive experts. Others who focus on one aspect–weapons, certain battles, certain regiments–are experts in those areas. No one alive today has first hand knowledge of the war. Those “experts” are gone. All it takes today to be an “expert” is exposure to the extant literature. High IQ’s are not even required–just a good memory for what has been read. But to put that expertise on paper (or digitally) requires a talent or gift that not everyone has in their possession regardless of the number of books they have consumed.

  2. …and this is exactly what I am talking about! I shall focus on some books that I think should be in most personal Civil War libraries. I will present my opinions only, and I do not presume to represent anyone other than myself. There will be a novel, perhaps–a book of maps, a diary, something to look at, some politics, something on Lincoln, common soldiers, maybe some poems, maybe not–I have the general ideas in mind, but I am hoping that our readers chime in.

    Thank you, Mr. Piatek, for starting us off with spirit and passion.

  3. This should prove to be quite interesting and I hope I will find some books that I have not read before. As for me, I still feel that Catton’s “This Hallowed Ground” is the best “primer” for those just getting interested in the ACW period. For the best overall treatment of the era again I would go with Catton. His Centennial series, “The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat” uses source material from both sides to build this work, and I feel it is one of the most balanced works out there.

  4. Thank you, Meg, for this post. it is refreshing to know what books are the best to gain knowledge about one of the roughest forms of ”sibling rivalry” “that the nations have ever seen. If I may add a couple of titles in the library in my possession, Conceived In Liberty, by Mark Perry, published in 1999, it lets people have a look at Joshua L. Chamberlain, William Oates meeting at Little Round Top with a lamp shining upon the feelings of each man, where they stood, before and after the War. A book of letters from an ordinary man, who could make a difference , but was unsure of how. Blue Eyed Child of Fortune, Col. Robert Gould Shaw goes a transformation as a human being who had lived abroad a lot of the time, when he comes home, he is expected to treat everyone with the same courtesy. Society did not help in this matter, however, a good read for finding out what spending time training a regiment can do for a person’s self esteem, what repect although a bit nervous. cando when things are down to the wire. Just a recommendation.

  5. I have moved recently and just got back into reading this site. I missed it during the move. Now I know why I missed it . Personally, I had to divest myself of over 600 books as I had no place to put them. I donated them to museums, round tables, and friends. I kept those that were most important to me, 400 of them. I think this ‘best’ idea is great. Perhaps we all should send in a list and get perspectives on just what ‘the choir’ is thinking and reading

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