The Book That Got Me Started: Great Battles of the Civil War

Every Civil War enthusiast has a favorite book. Heck, I can name off ten. I thought to myself, “Which book had the greatest impact on stimulating my interest in the American Civil War”?

I have fond memories of Great Battles of the Civil War, co-authored by Martin F. Graham (contributing writer), George Skoch (contributing writer), and William C. Davis (consultant) from an early age. My mother worked as a real estate agent, so I kept myself busy by browsing its pages during her open houses. The book became a constant companion.

My original copy of Great Battles of the Civil War.

I still have the original copy in my library all these years later. It’s missing the jacket, most of the pages are detached from the binding, the cover is nicked and scuffed, and its edges are frayed. But it’s still a serviceable copy.

Taking a close look at the book for the first time in years, I easily realized why I was so fond of it. It covers 26 significant battles in chronological order, beginning with the Battle of Bull Run and ending with Petersburg. Each well-written battle summary is accompanied by photographs of the opposing commanders and lithographs of the battles. It’s a wonderful starter book for anyone wanting to learn about the major battles of the American Civil War.

The lithographs by Kurz & Allison are the most alluring element of the book. I was drawn to their brightly colored landscapes and well-dressed soldiers waging war in heroic contests. My favorite battle scenes were the havelock-clad soldiers fighting off cavaliers with plumed hats at Bull Run; the mortal wounding of General Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek; the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts storming Fort Wagner; and General John M. Schofield’s entrenched infantrymen confronting a gray tide at Franklin. As my study of the war matured, I came to realize that these renditions were grossly inaccurate. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed them, and they helped me to visualize the battles I was reading about.

Battle of Bull Run by Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, Chicago, U.S.A.

Although my interests have drifted in all directions since I first picked up Great Battles of the Civil War over a decade ago, it set the groundwork for me wanting to read more and write about the American Civil War. As a teenager, I started to draft my first book on the Union heroes of the war. It snowballed from there.

Numerous books have contributed to my continuing interest in the war and development as a scholar, but I thank Skoch, Graham, and Davis for publishing Great Battles of the Civil War. It reeled me in at an early age and added a lifelong Civil War enthusiast to the ranks.

Storming Fort Wagner by Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, Chicago, U.S.A.

About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He's written dozens of articles and two books on Victorian officers. Visit www.frankjastrzembski.com to view a complete list of his publications. When he is not writing, he travels with his wife, explores old cemeteries, plays wargames, and hunts for vintage military and political memorabilia.
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10 Responses to The Book That Got Me Started: Great Battles of the Civil War

  1. Tony Robertson says:

    Great story. My starting book was a 10-cent buy at an Ozarks yard sale – “Heroes in Blue & Gray.” Each chapter covers an individual in a specific battle. Some famous – Stonewall, Lee, Thomas, Grant. Some less familiar – Pelham, Sumner, etc. Good for a young reader.

    • billhenck says:

      Heroes in Blue and Gray got me started as well.

    • shelley neal says:

      I am new to researching the Civil War era with my family names. “Capt. Daniel Bradley, Dr., Maj. Daniel Bradley, Geo. Howe Bradley, Daniel Decker, Stephen Henry Robinson, Earl Luccis Robertson, DDS, Lucius Robertson, DDS SR., George Hall Robertson, Daniel McCartney, Robert McCartney, John Alexander Clinger, Henry Clinger, WHERE DO I BEGIN?

  2. John Pryor says:

    Fletcher Pratt’s A Short History of the Civil War. The prose is magnificent. He is phenomenal at small character vignettes, his battle descriptions hop with vitality. He gets some details wrong; an example is repeating the canard of Pleasonton launching a cavalry charge at Chancellorsville, but all in all a great introduction, and a hook into more detailed war studies.

  3. Curt Thomasco says:

    Bruce Cattons- American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War from the centennial. The battle maps ENTHRALLED me as a kid. I can’ tell you how many times I tried to recreate those maps with plastic soldiers on the pool table in the basement.

  4. Alton Bunn, Jr says:

    While they didn’t get me started my favorite is the six volume Image of War:1861-1865 series. I love the treasure trove of Civil War era photos and it only prompted me to buy other CW photo books.

  5. scott smith says:

    I read “Rifles for Watie” by Harold Keith as a third grader.

  6. Larry Meier says:

    Back in the 50’s as a kid in Virginia it was all about Lee, Jackson. And Stuart. But Bruce Catton’ s trilogy on the Army of the Potomac opened up an entirely new world. Now I can’t get enough of Grant and Sherman. Comment above mentions Rifles for Waite. That was also a good one.

  7. Benjamin C Arndt says:

    Every one of those books, plus the osmosis of being a young kid during the Centennial. But most loved? “Muddy Road to Glory” by Stephen Meader

  8. Glen Robertson says:

    Catton’s “American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War” was my gateway drug. ?

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