Question of the Week: 12/20/21-12/26/21

Who is your favorite writer of narrative Civil War history? In other words, who writes their history as a good story, and what makes it so good?

29 Responses to Question of the Week: 12/20/21-12/26/21

  1. Shelby Foote.

    Though his History of the Civil War is 3 volumes of around 1000 pages each, his writing style makes it easy to read.

    Plus he drops some interesting facts into the narrative.

    1. I think he’s a fantastic writer but perhaps less successful as a historian–although the limited sources he had available to work with combined with the pervading ideas of the war at the time certainly made his trilogy a product of its era. It’s definitely a well-written, well-crafted story.

      1. I never read Shelby Foote until he became well known from the Civil War TV series. The main reason was that my local library had his book series from when it was first published but classified the series as fiction, not non-fiction history. Did that happen at other libraries or with other authors?

  2. Lew Wallace. His autobiography is compelling reading, and includes detail regarding Shiloh, Fort Donelson, and the immediate aftermath of Halleck’s Siege of Corinth missed by other observers. Even Wallace’s after-action reports, found in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, are engaging… written by a story-teller rather than a military specialist.

  3. Bruce Catton’s narratives are gripping, easy to understand, and stand up over many years. I still recommend his books to anyone looking for a good introduction to the war.

    1. Chris: I completely agree. Catton painted “word pictures” unlike anybody else and knew how to retell specific incidents to convey key elements of the war. As just one example of many, his account in Glory Road of Oliver Morton’s maneuvers to keep Indiana’s regiments supplied despite the machinations of the Democratic legislature during the Winter of 1862-63 would make a great, entertaining short story in its own right. His books are somewhat dated and his primary sources can come under critical scrutiny but they are still reliable enough that they are a great introduction for folks new to the ACW, as you suggest. They read much like good fiction.

    2. Catton knew how to construct a great narrative and paint well-realized portraits of his characters. I agree, his writing really flows well, and it still holds up today.

      1. I agree as well. Reading Catton’s work is almost effortless. I just picked up the first two volumes of his Army of The Potomac trilogy and plan to read them (and Stillness at Appomatox again) in the coming year.

    3. I vote for Bruce Catton too. My local library considered him a non-fiction history author. I still recommend his American Heritage Junior Library book on Gettysburg as a good starter book for people who are thinking about visiting the battlefield and want some background.

    4. Chris:
      You’re right-on. I started reading Catton when I was 12 years old. (I’m now 78.) Since then, I’ve read hundreds of Civil War books, and Catton is still the best.

  4. I recently finished Allen Guelzo’s biography of Robert E. Lee and was amazed by the writing It was so good that I decided to read his book on Gettysburg in 2022 even though I am very well versed on the battle. I am currently re-reading Stephen Sear’s classic on Chancellorsville and I had forgotten how much I enjoy his writing.

  5. “The Passing of the Armies”, Chamberlain. He uses a mildly florid Victorian prose, but that adds to the intense drama of the story he is telling from a purely factual point of view based on personal observations. He gives interesting insights into some of the Union Army politics now famous, but is otherwise not promoting an agenda of any kind. And he has, from time to time, a charming sense of humor.

  6. Also, Burke Davis. Detailed descriptions of ground-level detail that make, for example, “To Appomattox, Nine April Days, 1865” a gripping, ‘can’t put down’ book.

  7. I believe that Gordon Rhea writes very well. I couldn’t wait for each volume of the Overland Campaign to come out. All were well written.

  8. Jim Hessler. His writing invites the reader to use his/her imagination to picture the event under description.

    1. Ralph Peters . I know it’s historical fiction but he sticks to the history very closely and makes it interesting. Cain at Gettysburg is my favorite. I have read it several times. I love it when Der Kriz says about Barlow’s knoll “we’re in the shit now.” It’s fiction but it just seems perfect

      1. For historical fiction I completely agree. Peters’ books (and all that follow Cain at Gettysburg are equally good) are a much more realistic portrait of combat and characters than anything by the Shaaras. It’s like comparing Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers/The Pacific to that Maxwell/Turner stuff.

  9. Shaara – Michael and Jeff . Love historical fiction. They are masters. They stick very close to the history. Their imagination fills in the blanks

  10. several months ago, i “rediscovered” Bruce Catton’s Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command in a dusty corner of a Winchester antique shop … unlike many authors whose prose doesn’t age well, Catton reads as fresh today as it did in the 1960s.

  11. I agree with those who mention Guelzo’s writing, it is wonderful. For me, the best writer of history right now has not written about the Civil War and I wish he would. He is Nathaniel Philbrick.

  12. Shelby Foote, Kent Masterson Brown and Stephen Sears, all can tell a good story and are easy to read.

  13. Bruce Catton. His book “This Hallowed Ground” introduced me to the Civil War. It’s not for nothing he was awarded, among other things, the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    For a good historical fiction read, I suggest Unto This Hour by Tom Wicker. It was published in the mid 1980s and is a very interesting (in my opinion) account of Second Manassas.

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