Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ed Bearss' favorite Civil War books

No, Ed did not mention a book on Glorieta Pass in his top five, but I'll bet you he read this one, and thought highly of it. On his tours of Glorieta and Valverde, no doubt he crossed paths with the late historian Don Alberts, who sadly passed away from Parkinson's in November of 2010. I love the New Mexico desert, and I love Don's book on Glorieta (read Don's account of the battle at the Civil War Trust website).

I started thinking about Don's book when I stumbled upon this link over at the fine "Past in the Present" blog, a Billings Gazette article that asked Ed Bearss to list his five favorite Civil War books. I was very curious to see what Ed would list, since these kinds of things are so subjective, and imagining what any one person would say after a lifetime of study is difficult. Battle Cry of Freedom and Grant's memoirs are unassailable choices. I imagine a great many people would list them as a "must" for any top five ranking. I do.

I was interested to see the Sears' book on Gettysburgwhich I have not readmake the list for best book on a single battle. Now I feel like I have to read it, though before today my chances of getting around to it were less than 50-50. Still waiting on my metaphorical nightstand is Steven Woodworth's single volume Gettysburg history, Beneath a Northern Sky (about which Jeffrey Hall wrote a fairly penetrating review).

Invariably at some point when reading a book by Sears, I find myself distracted by the author's emotional reaction to one thing or another, one officer or another. Since McClellan was not at Gettysburg, perhaps the distractions of his book on that subject are more fleeting. I should say that Sears' book on Antietam, Landscape Turned Red, was one of the truly seminal books in my own Civil War reading. Powerful stuff. I might have included it in my own top five had I re-read it any time in the last 15 years. I can't really remember it that well now. His Seven Days book is a great contribution.

For personal gratification, I was hoping Bearss would name Mark Bradley's book on Bentonville, Last Stand in the Carolinas, which I assembled in Quark on my Mac in the dining room of our then Santa Clara apartment. Ed did make it known he considers Mark's tome a landmark work. I won't take issue with Ed's choice of Killer Angels, only say that it's a gripping story the first time you read it, but harder to revisit the more you learn about the Civil War. At least that was my experience.

Of course picking five "favorite" books from a list of literally thousands of titles is pretty impossible, like naming your favorite five novels of the 20 century, or favorite five movies of the last 40 years. But like Rob in Nick Hornby's brilliant novel (later movie) High Fidelity, ranking items in lists is something we are inclined to do as a way to get a handle on things.

My five favorite Civil War books (not counting reference works, for which I have an inordinate fondness)? I thought you'd never ask. One has to distinguish between "favorite" and "indispensable." Edward Porter Alexander's, Fighting for the Confederacy is indispensable, and a good read, but I guess I wouldn't rank it among my top five favorites. Likewise, Charles Roland's, The American Illiad is my favorite concise single-volume history, but you can't have two single-volume histories in your top five, can you? Isn't there a rule about that? Anyway, if it's Monday, then the list must read this way:

1. Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson
2. Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
3. Decision in the West, the Atlanta Campaign of 1864, by Albert Castel
4. A Stillness at Appomattox, by Bruce Catton
5. The Battle of Glorieta, Union Victory in the West, by Don E. Alberts

What's your top five, just off the top of your head?


James F. Epperson said...

OK, I'll bite:

Battle Cry of Freedom

Grant's Memoirs

McClellan, Sherman, and Grant (T Harry Williams)

Stillness at Appomattox

John Brown's Body (Stephen Vincent Benet)

Team of Rivals

Honorable Mention goes to Bud Robertson's Stonewall Jackson bio.

Jane Johansson said...

I'll take a stab at it also--here are my favorite Civil War books as of today in no particular order.

Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in The American Civil War, 1861-1865. 1898. This is one of the most useful (and interesting) books in my collection.

Frassanito, William A. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day. 1978. Impressive detective work is a hallmark of this fascinating volume. Also, the author's focus on several common soldiers who have a connection in some way to the photographs is quite moving.

Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment In The Civil War. 1957. Great read and wonderful information about common soldiers.

Stillwell, Leander. The Story Of A Common Soldier. 1920. Stillwell served in the 61st Illinois, a unit that campaigned in the western and trans-Mississippi theaters. Lots of great comments about army life, what it was like to be under fire, etc.

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. 1992. This book has not received the attention that it deserves. In my opinion, it is one of the best campaign histories ever written. I regard it as a model campaign history.

dw said...

Jim -- I really need to read "Team of Rivals." Interesting that you pulled in an epic poem.

Jane -- good books all. I nearly included a Frassanito book. The first time you encounter his work, it blows you away. Likewise, I mused for awhile about including the Shea/Hess book. Pea Ridge is one of my favorite battlefields, for various reasons. Prairie Grove, too.

James F. Epperson said...

It's also interesting that I listed *six* books---no doubt a consequence of posting before being fully caffeinated :-(

If you want to make it 5, drop the T Harry Williams book; it is one of the oldest, and definitely the shortest.

As for the poem, I believe Catton said something to the effect that you cannot understand the Civil War without reading it.

Anonymous said...

In no particular order here goes:

General Lee's Army by Joseph Glathaar

Hardtack & Coffee by John D. Billings

Life of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank by Bell I. Wiley
(counting as one)

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

America Goes to War by Bruce Catton

Keith Muchowski

dw said...

Good choices, Keith. I had considered putting "Hardtack and Coffee" on my list -- truly one of the all-time classics.

I've seen some reviews of "1861" but haven't read the book. Sounds like an impressive work.


Jane Johansson said...

I like your choices as well, David. Decision in the West, although I don't always agree with Castel's conclusions, is a favorite of mine. At first his use of present tense was a bit jarring, but I soon grew to like it. And kudos to you for selecting the Glorieta book!

dw said...

Hi Jane,

Yes, Castel's unconventional approach some getting used to, but it's not a distraction for long. I liked his effort to inject the "fog of war" into the narrative, letting things unfold. The Glorieta book is a masterpiece -- one of those rich works culminating from decades of study and an intimate grasp of the geography.


Anonymous said...

David, I love Hardtack and Coffee because unlike so many first person accounts of the war it is quite witty and unpretentious. Goodheart's 1861 is something of a contemporary version of Catton's excellent The Coming Fury.


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Jim Rosebrock said...

I like
Taken at the Flood by Joseph Harsh
Stonewall Jackson by James Robertson
Unfurl those Colors by Vince Armstrong
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
Return to Bull Run by John Hennesey