Every bookshelf should contain some sort of diary or collection of letters, memoirs, etc. from one person who served in the Civil War. I would recommend a volume written by a common soldier rather than a commanding officer, so this is not a plug for Grant’s Memoirs. In fact, this particular recommendation is more a “your choice” than one specific book title.
The most famous (thank you Ken Burns!) of these types of memoirs is All For the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Rhodes was a nineteen-year old private in the Second Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. He joined his local unit of volunteers, with permission from his widowed mother, in July 1861. When he left the Army of the Potomac, a little over four years later, he was a colonel in command of his regiment, and an experienced twenty-three year old combat veteran. He kept diaries and wrote letters in an educated manner during the entire time of his enlistment, quickly developing a readable style that makes this particular volume very enjoyable.
Another memoir/diary I have enjoyed reading is With the Third Wisconsin Badgers: The Living Experience of the Civil War Through the Journals of Van R. Willard. This young man was also one of the “boys of ’61,” having signed up in his home town of Neenah, Wisconsin, with the Neenah Guards just after President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers. Willard served continuously until July 1, 1864, when he was mustered out. Unlike the amazingly healthy Rhodes, Willard spent time in a variety of Union hospitals for both illness and an injury. He even served as a nurse as he reached the end of his convalescence for illness. Willard often expressed his emotions in poetry, which is less unusual than one might think for the time, and examples of this poetry is included in the volume.
When I was doing research on the role of Custer during the Battle of Gettysburg, I used several memoirs of men with whom Custer had served, and who were participants in the particular event I was researching. I will mention three that were informative, readable, and helped me make my case that, basically, Custer won Gettysburg (more on that later, like July!). These are not book-length volumes, which means that finding specific information is easier: “Come On, You Wolverines!”: Custer at Gettysburg, At Custer’s Side: The Civil War Writings of James Harvey Kidd, and Under Custer’s Command: The Civil War Journal of James Henry Avery.
Why should you have one, or more, of these memoirs? Because they give us the truest glimpse into the hearts and minds of the young men who fought this war. Here is the pretty-much unvarnished truth about how Union (and Confederate) men felt about slavery, about the South as an idea and the “enemy” as individual soldiers, and how camp life affected them, one and all. The humor and heartbreak is plainly evident. The fear of battle, oddly enough, is explained not as a fear of injury or death, but as a fear of cowardice, or the perception of such. Putting a human face–indeed, a young, cheerful, boyish face–on any soldier in any war is a huge step toward understanding that war.
More and more of these types of books are being published. You might even be involved in editing one, or know of some similar project. As more letters and journals are being uncovered in attics, trunks and letter caches, the finders are realizing the worth of the discovery. Colleges and universities have set aside entire departments to handle old manuscripts, and grad students are giving these documents the care and concern they have always deserved. The big guns in Civil War history are now open to reading and interpreting these unique primary sources, and many more of these publications now have names like Eric Wittenberg, Michael Phipps, and William C. Davis on their covers.
If you have a specific interest in the Civil War–a geographic locale, a relative’s involvement, a certain year or one specific battle–there is probably a memoir out there for you. I am a big fan of amazon.com and its used books, but there are many places to look online for titles. Wikipedia, which gets way too much bad publicity, is another place to start. Wiki up your subject, then go to the end of the article and check the individual sources for titles concerning your area of interest. You will find nuggets of gold!
I will offer only one disclaimer–I am a Unionist, so most of my work and research concerns the Northern armies and politicians. If you lean a bit more South, I plead with you to send your recommendations in this category to me. I simply do not know these sources well enough to comment on them. That being said, I just ordered Co. Aytch, by Confederate Sam Watkins, on amazon, for less than $5.00. Sam Watkins was Ken Burns’s Confederate mirror to Elijah Hunt Rhodes, and I am an idiot if I don’t read this book.
Don’t be an idiot (joke)–own, and read, a memoir! (not a joke!).