I often wonder what motivates people to buy the Civil War books they do. Are they interested in learning something? Being entertained? Both? Do they want to hear their favorite story told one more time, maybe in a new way? Or maybe exactly as they expect it to be told, without anyone monkeying with it at all?
While I have pondered these questions on and off ever since I became an author, a recent experience led me to consider them anew.
After a recent program I offered on Spotsylvania, an audience member came to my book table to see what I had to offer. He saw my book on Spotsylvania, A Season of Slaughter, co-authored with Kris White. “I’ll get that one,” he said. Looking at the other books, he saw Hell Itself, my book on the battle of the Wilderness. “I know that one,” he declared, referring to the battle. “I’ll get that one, too.”
“If you’re following the Overland Campaign,” I suggested, “this book picks up where the Spotsy book leaves off.” I referred him to Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River, which covers the third phase of the Overland Campaign.
He pursed his lips and thought about it for a hot second then shook his head. “Don’t know that one,” he said. “Anything on Cold Harbor?”
I recommended Hurricane from the Heavens, the ECWS book written by my friends and colleagues Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt. I don’t carry their books, but I told him he could find it on Amazon or through the publisher. The man thanked me, paid for his two books, and left.
It’s not the first time I’ve had that sort of interaction with someone over Strike Them a Blow. People are not as familiar with that phase of the Overland Campaign, and so they tend to shy away from the book that covers it. Certainly not everyone does, but I am surprised by the number of people who do.
After all, if you don’t know about a particular battle, isn’t that the perfect reason to buy a book about it? Especially a quick, easy to read overview book that doesn’t require a huge financial or time commitment?
In this particular instance, for someone trying to understand the Overland Campaign as a whole, I would think it is particularly useful to fill in the holes for better context.
I could offer many reasons why the North Anna phase of the campaign is particularly deserving of attention despite the fact that the fight there paled in comparison in to everything that came before and after. It perfectly exemplifies the effects of Grant’s war of attrition, and there are significant psychological components. That’s not really my point here at the moment, though.
I realize there has to be a limit on how many books you could ever buy and how far beyond your comfort zone you might ever be willing to go. And if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it fifty times: “If I bring one more book into the house, my wife will shoot me.” I have a wife who’s armed for just that purpose, so I believe folks when they tell me it’s so for them, too.
But in choosing the books they do purchase, I am also surprised by how closely people stick to what they’re familiar with rather than dipping their toes into something new. We all know people, for instance, who will read every single Gettysburg-related book published, but they are apt to balk at something about, say, Petersburg—and heaven forbid they pick up anything that covers the West, even though books on Vicksburg and Tullahoma, for instance, would certainly give anything Gettysburg-related a much fuller context.
Again, I’m generalizing. I know plenty of folks with huge, diverse libraries, and they’re always excited to talk about them. But many others remain narrowly focused in what they’ll look at.
When I sign copies of Strike Them a Blow, I include the following inscription: “Thank you for taking a closer look at this most overlooked phase of the Overland Campaign.”
I urge you, Faithful Reader—not just with North Anna but with the entire war—to take a closer look at the things you tend to overlook. Read the things you love, surely, but consider adding to your library in a way that helps you build context for the things that interest you most deeply. Try something new every once in a while. Peek beyond the military into the political, economic, and (dare I say it…) social.
Take a look at those things you’d otherwise be apt to overlook.
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Chris will speak about the Confederate defense along the North Anna River at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge.