Question of the Week: 3/26-4/1/18

Through the decades, many historians and history buffs have echoed Thomas Jefferson’s sentiment, “I cannot live without books.”

What is the one Civil War book you think is absolutely essential? Hyperbole speaking – the one book you “cannot live without”?

37 Responses to Question of the Week: 3/26-4/1/18

  1. Fletcher Pratt’s Ordeal by Fire. This is one book that stands above all others in the elegance of its prose and the power of its narrative. It may be shot through with minor errors and flaws, but a serious student will overlook these and just go with the flow.

  2. It’s more a war-era book than on the actual war, but “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” by Anne Marshall helped me understand the “Kentucky joined the Confederacy after the war” cliche (and how/why it started) better and also helps me pay attention to how the War is viewed today, which has been helpful during the controversies over statues, building names, etc.

    Sticking to a strictly “war” book is extremely tough, but I will go with “Forgotten Valor” about the life and career of Union General Orlando Wilcox. It was the first time I read a book and felt like I knew the person it discussed. It made me feel his ambitions, hopes and goals, and though I do not remember the military details of his life, I still feel like I know him even 15+ years after reading it.

  3. I return again and again to “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz. The landscape has certainly changed since Horwitz wrote the book, but most of the central questions remain: a segment of our country is fascinated by the Civil War in ways that words can’t never really capture. Horwitz shows that fascination well and mulls over the questions in thoughtful ways that still invite readers to mull with him.

  4. The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton, copyright 1960, 1988, and Jame’s McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (the illustrated edition), are, in my judgment, heads and shoulders above anything else written about the war, because they both furnish incredibly comprehensive overviews of the entire conflict, including the events leading up to it. Such overviews give the student of the war an understanding of it not otherwise acquired from narrower treatments of only parts of the story and thereby enable the student to place the contest in its proper historical perspective.

  5. The essential book is Complicity, by Farrow, Lang, and Frank. This book is unparalleled in explaining how the entire nation was guilty of slavery. It shows that vilifying the South is hypocritical and does nothing to increase understanding of U.S. history.

  6. ORDEAL BY FIRE, for as with John Pryor my view of the ACE was formed and continues to be largely set by Fletcher Pratt’s pro-Union “muscular prose.”

  7. “Mrs. Robert E. Lee, Lady of Arlington” (by a college classmate , John Perry) has some history I hadn’t read before and from the different perspective of Mrs. Lee.

  8. Only one? I can’t pick only one. I’ve gone from fiction to fact, and back again. Just read a book on civil war prisons. Which led me to reading more about PTSD. Currently I’m reading Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930. Thanks to everyone who has answered the question. I’ve added more onto my must-read list.

  9. One?! Just one? Well, now you’re just being unreasonable?. You must mean in addition to all the books written by Chris and Kris and Dan about Central Virginia battlefields.
    My “one” changes regularly I suppose and the current “one” is ‘Fighting for the Confederacy- The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander’. I find his version of things and opinion of leaders of both sides to be evenly measured and seemingly candid.

    1. Heard good things about this one. Several years back at the Civil War exhibition at the Library of Congress, I saw Porter’s note to Longstreet of July 3rd about the need to send Pickett, et al forward. Gave me chills.

    2. That’s a great primary source. He’s thorough and level-headed and offers some pretty fair assessments.

      Thanks, as always, for your shout-outs, Joe. 😉

  10. One (any one) of Catton’s A of the P trilogy. Dated, too reliant on memoirs, etc. but brilliantly written. Ironically, Foote may have been the novelist but Catton (a journalist) was the better writer. Now can I go back to the other 750 or so that are absolutely essential? 🙂

    1. Here, let me just borrow that–Oh? Sure! You can borrow this one–Oh wait! You can have it–I have multiple copies . . . LOL.

    2. I love Catton’s three volume Centennial history, especially on all the attention he pays to the Charleston Convention and the Democratic death ride!

  11. Killer Angels is the book that got me into the Civil War, but Confederates in the Attic and April 1865 are great books. Is that more than one?

  12. Here’s a possible surprise. I believe Ron Chernow’s Grant is the greatest biography I’ve ever read.

  13. A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton. He made prose read like poetry and this was his best work.

  14. I was given a copy of Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Pictorial History of the Civil War for my birthday during the centennial and that really sparked my interest; later I got to meet E.B. “Pete” Long, Catton’s researcher and that was a treasure to shake hands with someone who knew Catton so well. Coming from Australia, we didn’t have a lot of titles to choose from and surprising that the Civil War got so much attention in the local bookshops – still trending well are the Shelby Foote Trilogy and Battle Cry of Freedom (and Confederates in the Attic author was married to an Australian writer).

    1. I second this. Catton’s Pictorial History or his “The Civil War” are the finest overviews. McPherson runs a fairly close second, but the length of “Battle Cry of Freedom” can be daunting for some readers.

  15. I’m having trouble narrowing it down to one book, of course, but all of my choices are written by Bruce Catton. OK, I’ll make a choice:

    “U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition.”

  16. Since I tend to view the Wilderness as the true turning point of the war, I am going to go with Rhea’s Wilderness book, though the other books are necessary to get the full picture.

  17. The Confederate Soldier in the Civil War Ben La Bree edited 1895,

  18. One of my favorites is The Battle Of Bentonville: Last Stand In The Carolinas by Mark L. Bradley. I think this is the best book out there on this particular part of the war. Complimenting Mark’s excellent writing skills are the outstanding maps of Mark A. Moore.

  19. As many have suggested, selecting just one volume is nearly impossible.

    That being said, I would choose “Cold Harbor”, the fourth volume in Gordon Rhea’s iconic study of the Overland Campaign. To me it’s a microcosm of the month-long brutality and carnage of that campaign.

    1. Rhea’s books are a welcome antidote to anyone who wishes to romanticize this war’s last year. Lee at his best, Grant at his most negligent, but still looking South to the James…

  20. Since the story of the Civil War to me is the story of those involved in it and their experiences and reflections I have to go with either “Soldier Life in the Union and Confederate Armies” (includes “Hardtack and Coffee” by Billings and “Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia” by McCarthy) or “The Life of Johnny Reb/The Life of Billy Yank” by Wiley.

  21. I’m late to the party, but just have to throw in one sailor’s book: “Memoirs of Service Afloat” by Raphael Semmes. Great writer. Dedicated and articulate Confederate. Even if you are not normally into sea stories, this one is enjoyable and gives a whole different perspective.

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