I happen to be Book Review Editor for Civil War News, the nation’s monthly newspaper for enthusiasts. For our November issue I helped CWN Publisher Jack Melton plan some nifty features for the issue.
Two years ago, for our 2016 Book Issue, I corralled a handful of cognoscenti into selecting “a book published this year which strikes them as notable or particularly interesting.” Will Greene, then about to retire from Pamplin Park, chose Earl Hess’ biography of Braxton Bragg. David Woodbury, early publishing partner of Ted Savas, selected William J. Miller, Decision at Tom’s Brook. Lawrence Peterson, author of the biography of Confederate Brig. Gen. A. J. Vaughan, picked Ralph Peters’ novel about Petersburg. Prof. Jonathan Noyalas, on the way to moving to Shenandoah University, chose Kirk Savage’s The Civil War in Art and Memory (which I reviewed favorably for CWN in February 2017). Doug Ullman, then Digital Content Producer for the Civil War Trust, selected John Stausbaugh’s City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War.
For last year’s Book Issue we got several publishers to write about some of their popular Civil War titles. Thomas Wells, Acquisitions Editor for the University of Tennessee Press, emphasized the Press’ role in publishing works on the western theater. Bruce Franklin, founder of Westholme Publishing, told us how he worked with Russ Bonds to put out his War Like The Thunderbolt(2009).
Jack puts a good deal of thought into the issue. At his good suggestion last July 2, we asked Chris Mackowski if he’d write an article on the history and evolution of the Emerging Civil War Series (he did, commendably). As he did last year, Jack asked Marc Ramsey, the Richmond bookseller, to write something for us, too.
I happened to be in Charleston in late July, when I hooked up with Jack. After a delightful visit to Fort Moultrie, we found a downtown bar where we ordered a few beers and honed our ideas for the special issue. We talked about who we could get to write about their favorite Civil War books. Published when? We bracketed those since 1992, the past quarter-century. Then, when I got back home on August 1, I sent an e-mail to eleven potential contributors: would you write an article about your favorite recent titles (from one to ten of them). For each, would you write 50-100 words (three sentences or so). Be sure to tell us why you chose these. Then the insult to injury: we need your article by September 20. (Jack starts putting his material together 40 days before the month of issue.)
As we swapped ideas on that Saturday afternoon in Charleston, Jack thought it’d be a coup for our newspaper if we could maybe get a “heavy hitter” in the Civil War community to serve up his ideas on favorite books. So, how about Ed Bearss!? Jack knew that one of our readers, Dorothy Partridge, is a close friend of Ed—goes on his tours, visits him at home, chats by phone, &c. Jack thought Dorothy might agree to reach out and see if Ed would write for us, or give Dorothy a phone interview from which she could write an article. It worked! Check out, “Ed Bearss Chooses His Favorite Civil War Books” on our very front page—Dorothy wrote a fine piece, based on her phone chat with Ed. And our front features Ed’s favorite photograph of himself in Marine uniform from World War Two!
Given the bookish tilt of the November number, Gould Hagler wrote a piece on the history of the Richard Barksdale Harwell Award, offered by the Atlanta Civil War Round Table for the best book (as judged by its committee) published in the preceding year. We also agreed that we’d simply list the 200 titles selected by Richard Barksdale Harwell in his In Tall Cotton: The 200 Most Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher and Collector (1978). Broadfoot Publishing Company issued a reprint of ITC in 2006. Just to be sure, we asked Broadfoot for permission to cite the two hundred books (Tom graciously said yes). By pure coincidence, the article submitted by Marc Ramsey and Roger Semplak was about In Tall Cotton—that’s a lot of Harwelliana in one issue!
Along the way, I remembered that back in 1996, at one of the late Bob Maher’s symposia, I had spoken on some notable titles in the literature of the Army of Northern Virginia. I pulled out my paper—yes, this was before PowerPoint, and we actually spoke from the lectern—and fashioned an article for our November issue named the same way as my talk for Bob. I remembered that I had searched for a title: “The Civil War’s Best Books: God Only Knows What They Are”? Or maybe “100 Best Books on the Civil War: Yeah, Sez Who”? I settled on “From Cooke’s Books to Krick’s Licks.” After all, I was drawing books all the way from John Esten Cooke’s The Wearing of the Gray (1867) to Robert K. Krick’s Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain (1990). (Bob was in the St. Louis audience, and loved my title.)
Bibliographic bloviating can get a little tedious, so I offered the audience some jokey leavening. At one point, I offered it a six pack of beer if anyone could answer the conundrum written by Mary Boykin Chesnut in her Diary from Dixie: what’s the difference between a gorilla, an orphan, a baldheaded man, and the Prince of Wales?
As we were going to print, Jack sensed that with long pieces on Harwell’s Confederate collectibles and my piece on Krick’s licks, we’d better offer a bit of balance. Jack thought of some way of addressing the Union bookshelf. I just so happen to have Michael Mullins and Rowena Reed’s The Union Bookshelf: A Selected Civil War Bibliography (1982). Talk about coincidence: Mullins at the time was Book Review Editor of the Civil War Book Exchange, the forerunner of Civil War News. Rowena Reed was the first Book Review Editor for Blue & Gray Magazine. After she quit in1985, Dave Roth asked it I’d take the job—hence my twenty-year stint as BRE for B & G.
Anyway, Mullins and Reed selected 246 titles related to the North’s war effort. For about half of them they wrote short descriptions. Based on these, I randomly chose a dozen books to list by title, as we had done with Harwell’s. Once more, Tom Broadfoot kindly gave his O.K. I topped my list with J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War (1955).
Centerpiece for the issue, of course, were the “Favorite Books” articles that we got from eight contributors.
- Meg Groeling, a regular ECW blogger, listed among her favorite five Adam Goodheart’s 1861:The Awakening (2011). “All that and Ellsworth!” she thrilled—Meg is writing a biography of Elmer Ellsworth, slain at Alexandria in May ’61.
- Eric Wittenberg started his list of half-dozen with John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run(1993), about which I devoted a column in CWN‘s issue of May 2016.
- Garry Adelman focused on books relating to Civil War photography, and selected one of my favorites, Charleston at War by Jack Thomson (2000).
- On that subject, Chris Mackowski included in his five picks William Frassanito’s Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (1978).
- In his “Top Five Must-Read Book Choices,” Wayne Wolf picked a battle book, a biography, one on common soldiering, a civilian study and a work on military leadership.
- Jonathan Noyalas, who teaches at Shenandoah University, not surprisingly included three titles on the war in the Valley.
- Similarly, Mike Priest, a tour guide at Antietam Battlefield, began his list with the three-volume edition of Ezra Carman’s Maryland Campaign (2010, 2012, 2017).
- Jeff Wert gave us ten titles published in the last few decades, including one of my favorites, Bud Robertson’s edition of John Beauchamp Jones, A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary (2015).
Because enthusiasts like to give new books as holiday gifts, we run in November a lot more book reviews in our BRS than we do in other issues (six to eight on average). This year’s Book Issue features a dozen and a half critiques, including one by me, of G. Lee Millar’s Forrest Stories: Humor of Bedford Forrest and His Cavalry (2018). It seems that old Forrest could be a funny guy. Once, after the war, the famed cavalryman was in New York City on business. While strolling around downtown, he happened to look up and see a man at the top of a building who looked like he was about to jump. Concerned about the man’s fate, Forrest started thinking of things he could say that might dissuade the man from taking his life.
“Don’t jump! Remember your wife!”
“She divorced me!” yelled back the man.
“Remember your children!” Forrest roared.
“They ran away!” retorted the man.
“Remember your parents,” the general countered.
“They’re dead,” came the reply.
“Well then,” cried Forrest, “Remember Robert E. Lee!”
“Who is Robert E. Lee?” the man asked.
General Forrest yelled back, “Jump you damn Yankee!”
Oh…stumped on Mary Boykin Chesnut’s conundrum? A gorilla has a hairy parent; an orphan has nary a parent; a baldheaded man has no hair apparent; and the Prince of Wales is an heir apparent.