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Old May 31st, 2018, 12:09 PM   #1

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Viperlord's Civil War Book Recommendations


Hello, all. I thought I'd offer up a list of some of my favorite/essential American Civil War books for anyone looking to do some reading on the subject. I'm relatively well-read on the ACW, but the field of scholarship on it is immense and goes well beyond my recommendations here, so consider this a rough road map. This is also, naturally, biased towards books I actually own and can readily recall and use as resources. I'll doubtlessly forget some good books while I'm typing this up, and will try to periodically update this. Without further ado, here we go.




Introductory/General history of the war: For a one-volume work that sums up the war, James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is the most frequently recommended work. It is indeed a very good book that you can't go wrong starting with, but for my money, the best single book that covers the course of the war is Bruce Catton's This Hallowed Ground. It's a good, insightful summary, and Catton was a marvelous writer. Speaking of Catton, his three-volume centennial history of the war is also excellent.



Social history of the war: This is not my strongest area, and one where I should do more reading. That said, Bruce Levine's The Fall of the House of Dixie is an absolutely wonderful book about how the war affects the South in this regard. If you want to sort it into this category, I very much liked Ed Ayersí In The Presence of Mine Enemies as well, which is a history of the war through the perspective of two counties, one in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia. It only goes to 1863; he just published a sequel last year which finishes the story, but I havenít gotten around to reading it yet.




The background of the war and the run-up to secession: David Potterís The Impending Crisis and William Freehlingís Road to Disunion two-volume series are the essentials here. Charles Dewís Apostles of Disunion is also a very nice little work showing what Southern secessionists were actually saying in late 1860/early 1861.



Military history of the war: For one volume that analyzes the military history of the war, the top three are probably Hettaway and Jones' How The North Won, Donald Stoker's This Grand Design, and Russell Weigley's A Great Civil War. They're all useful books for different reasons; I personally liked the Weigley book the most out of these. For anything specifically on Civil War cavalry, check out the various works of Eric Wittenberg.



Battle and Campaign Studies: This is going to be a long one, so here we go




-First Manassas: John Hennessy's The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence.

-Wilson's Creek: None of the stuff out there on Wilson's Creek, the second sizable battle of the war, occurring in Missouri in mid-1861, is great honestly, nothing that I've read anyway. Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, by William Garrett Piston, is probably the best of the lot.

-Battle of Fort Donelson: The best here is definitely Timothy B. Smith's Grant Invades Tennessee.

-Battle of Pea Ridge: William Shea and Earl Hess' Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, hands down. This one is a favorite of mine.

-Battle of Shiloh: There's a number of good options here, but my personal favorite single book on Shiloh is Cunningham's Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862.

-Jackson's Valley Campaign: There have been a number of books written on Jackson's Valley Campaign; call this my own biases coming to the fore if you will, but I think many of them are heavily influenced by the Lost Cause. The most modern and evenhanded study is Peter Cozzens' Shenandoah 1862. It's the only book that really gives the Union side of the campaign the attention it deserves rather than just as a foil for the protagonist Jackson.

-The Peninsula Campaign: I'll note that this is not the campaign I'm most well-read on. For a single volume, Stephen Sears' book To The Gates of Richmond is probably still the best. For an alternate perspective on McClellan, here and in general, read Ethan Rafuse's McClellan's War.

-Second Manassas: Here we turn again to John J. Hennessy, this time with Return to Bull Run. This might be the best one-volume tactical study of an entire Civil War campaign.

-Antietam: The world of Antietam scholarship is quite wide, in an understated way; probably more has been written about this battle than any battle except Gettysburg. My favorite single book would be James Murfin's The Gleam of Bayonets. For an extensive study by an actual participant, look up Ezra Carman's two volume study of the campaign. You'll want the version edited by Tom Clemens. Joseph Harsh's strategic study of the campaign, Taken at the Flood, is also essential reading. There's a recent two-volume modern study by an author named Scott Hartwig, but I have not read that one yet.

-Second Battle of Corinth: Timothy B. Smith again, this time with a book titled Corinth 1862. Note that this battle is often also paired with a battle that occurred just previously, the Battle of Iuka, and they are part of the same campaign. The best book that tackles both Iuka and Corinth in some detail is probably Peter Cozzens' The Darkest Days of the War; however, I disagree with Cozzens' take on the Grant-Rosecrans controversy after the campaign and Smith's book is better for Corinth specifically.

-Battle of Perryville: Definitely Kenneth Noe's Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle.

-Battle of Prairie Grove: William Shea's Fields of Blood is the book you want for this battle. Shea is the guy to go to on the Trans-Mississippi.

-Battle of Fredericksburg: Frank O'Reilly's The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock is by far the best book on this campaign, and a personal favorite of mine. In contrast to Antietam, relatively little of note has been written on this campaign; the only other major modern book I can think of is George Rable's book, which is more of a new/social history take on the campaign.

-Battle of Stones' River: Peter Cozzens, No Better Place to Die.

-Vicksburg Campaign; Michael Ballard's Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi is the best single volume treatment of the entire campaign. Additionally, Timothy B. Smith's book on Champion Hill is the best for the major battle of the campaign and for that entire phase of the campaign after Grant crosses the Mississippi. There is plenty more out there on this campaign worth reading too, including Edwin Bearss' series on the campaign.

-Battle of Chancellorsville: There are two significant modern books on this battle, neither of which I am completely in love with. Those books are Stephen Sears' Chancellorsville, and Ernest Furgurson's Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave. Furgurson provides a more traditional analysis of the battle, which I am largely in agreement with; Sears has a revisionist view of Joseph Hooker that he pushes in his book, which I largely do not agree with. Furgurson's better on those details and the terrain, IMO, but Sears' great strength is that he's an excellent writer, which isn't to slam Furgurson, just that Sears is a very gifted and accessible writer for a military historian. Reading both books and then making your own mind up on Hooker is probably the best approach.

The best book on this campaign was written by a participant, John C. Bigelow. The book is titled The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study. However, it is extremely difficult to find a version of this book with Bigelow's maps included, especially at a reasonable price, and the maps are by far the greatest strength of the book.

I also strongly recommend finding the issues of Blue & Gray magazine that deal with each day of the battle, with articles written by Frank OíReilly. These also include absolutely excellent maps of the battle. Also, Chancellorsvilleís Forgotten Front by Mackowski and White is an excellent look at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and Salem Church.

-Battle of Gettysburg: The literature on Gettysburg is vast beyond belief. The best single book on the campaign is Edwin Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. It is a bit dense and dry in places however, so for newcomers, I tend to recommend Stephens Sears' Gettysburg as the place to start. It's a much easier read and Sears' analysis largely follows along with Coddington's.

-Tullahoma Campaign: This is a campaign that occurred in middle Tennessee at the time of Gettysburg and Vicksburg's fall, unusual in that there weren't any large battles, but it was a superb campaign of maneuver that sent the Confederate army there reeling back in defeat 80 miles to the south. There has not been a whole lot written specifically about it, but it gets a good treatment in Dave Powell's The Maps of Chickamauga.

-Chickamauga Campaign: One of the key events and campaigns of the western theater, the best treatment of this battle is undoubtedly Dave Powell's three-volume series on it. If that seems a bit much for you, his Maps of Chickamauga is an excellent single volume to read about it.

-Battle of Chattanooga: Peter Cozzens' The Shipwreck of Their Hopes is probably still the go-to book on this battle. Cozzens is cynical about the generalship involved in this battle, which is a general hallmark of his style.

-The Overland Campaign: Gordon Rhea's five-book series is undoubtedly the definitive work on the campaign. It is excellent and I highly recommend it. For a one-volume summary, the best would be Mark Grimsley's And Keep Moving On.

-The Battle of New Market: Charles Knight's Valley Thunder, which is a neat little book.

-Battle of Monocacy: Ryan Quint's Determined to Stand and Fight is a great little book on the battle.

-Sheridan's Valley Campaign: Jeffrey Wert's From Winchester to Cedar Creek is still the most concise treatment of this campaign.

-Bermuda Hundred Campaign: William Glenn Robertson's Back Door To Richmond is the best study of this campaign.

-The Atlanta Campaign: This is an area that needs some more study and comprehensive work. Currently, the most comprehensive single volume is Albert Castel's book, Decision in the West. It's good as far as the history goes, though some will disagree with his frigid assessment of Sherman and Johnston's generalship, but, and this is a purely stylistic gripe, I am not a fan of how it is written in the present tense. For a book by a campaign participant, find Jacob Cox's book on the campaign.

-Petersburg Campaign: Trudeau's The Last Citadel is probably the best one volume overview of the entire Petersburg Campaign. I haven't read it yet, but A. Wilson Greene just came out with the first volume of what I think is supposed to be a three-volume series on Petersburg, and that will likely be the definitive treatment. For the very end of the Petersburg Campaign, the assault that broke the Confederates lines for good, you'll want Dawn of Victory by Edward Alexander.

-Price's Raid into Missouri: The Last Hurrah by Kyle Sinisi. This is the best overall look at the Confederates' quixotic last effort in Missouri. For the conclusive Battle of Westport, see Howard Monnett's Action Before Westport.

-Battle of Franklin: Eric Jacobsonís For Cause and Country is the best option here.

-Battle of Bentonville: Havenít read too much on it, but Calamity in Carolina is a nice little book by Daniel Davis and Phil Greenwalt.

-Appomattox Campaign: Chris Calkins' The Appomattox Campaign is the best overview of the campaign from a military perspective.




Biographies: Way too many to list, but Iíll put a few significant ones for major figures.




-Lincoln: The field of Lincoln scholarship is too large at this point for any one mere mortal. If thereís a single book you should ever read about Lincoln however, it is doubtlessly David Donaldís biography. I also strongly recommend Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial, which charts Lincolnís evolving views on slavery and race. In addition, you can hardly ever go wrong reading any of the various collections of Lincolnís writings.

-Ulysses S. Grant: The options for biographies of Grant are beginning to get overwhelming too, these days, thereís been a virtual flood of bios in this century so far. I donít think anyone has written the perfect one volume bio of Grant yet, in spite of that. I think the best books on Grant to date are Brooks Simpsonís work; Triumph over Adversity covers Grantís life from birth to the end of the Civil War. There is a second volume that should be out in the next year or two. Simpson also wrote Let Us Have Peace, which covers Grant between the Civil War and his election to the Presidency. Beyond that, I highly recommend Bruce Cattonís series on Grant. Itís dated, but JFC Fullerís two books on Grant are an interesting perspective as one. (One is totally about Grant, the other is a comparison of Grant and Lee). Of course, for one book on Grant, it should probably be his memoirs.

-Robert E. Lee: Itís hard to know where to start here. Freemanís work is still a classic, but itís not totally reliable as Freeman himself was heavily reliant on SHSP, sources that were deliberately doctored by Lost Cause writers after the war. Honestly Iím not sure what I would recommend for one volume; despite the volumes written about Lee, there may be a gap in the market for a solid one-volume biography of him. I will definitely warn you away from the Korda and Thomas biographies of him, they arenít very good. Alan Nolanís book, Lee Considered, is an interesting revisionist view of Lee, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. (I donít, entirely)

-Stonewall Jackson: The classic work on Jackson is Bud Robertsonís biography. Itís huge, dense, and Robertson is very much in love with his subject, you should be warned. The recent S. C. Gywnne biography is very well-written and fairly good, but there are some sloppy mistakes that a specialist in the Civil War wouldnít have made.

-William T. Sherman: Both the John Marszalek and the James McDonough biographies are very good. His memoirs are also pretty good reading.

-James Longstreet: Definitely the Jeffrey Wert biography. The William Garrett Piston book is also very good on the way that the perception and memory issues involving Longstreet evolved post-war.

-John Pope: What is this loser doing here? Well, Peter Cozzensí biography of him happens to be one of my favorite Civil War biographies, thatís why. Really, itís very good.

-Winfield Scott Hancock: David Jordan wrote a very good biography of Hancock the Superb.

-John C. Breckinridge: Former Vice-President and candidate of the Southern Democrats in 1860, William C. Davis wrote a great biography of him.




Other memoirs: Edward Porter Alexanderís Fighting For the Confederacy is a fantastic memoir of the Civil War, the best from a Confederate officer. For common soldiers, Sam Watkins on the Confederate side and Elisha Hunt Rhodes on the Union side are classics too.




Lincolnís assassination: American Brutus by Michael Kauffman is the best account of the Booth conspiracy.




Reconstruction: Another area where I intend to focus more attention; Eric Fonerís book is the best single volume on it.




Memory studies: I was quite impressed by Burying the Dead but not the Past by Caroline Janney, which is an account of the role played by Ladies Memorial Associations in the Lost Cause. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves by Kirk Savage is also a great account of the history behind Civil War monuments.




Army histories: This category is here mainly so I can recommend Bruce Cattonís Army of the Potomac trilogy, an all-time classic of the Civil War. Additionally, Steve Woodworthís Nothing But Victory about the Army of the Tennessee, and Larry Danielís Days of Glory about the Army of the Cumberland are worth taking a look at.




Other primary sources: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Basically a bunch of essays and articles written by officers about their battles and campaigns after the war. Has to be treated with some caution of course, but it is invaluable. Of course, THE primary source for military history when it comes to the Civil War is the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. These are available and readily accessible for free online.



I think that's all I've got for the moment. If you have a question that's not covered by this list, I can probably answer it, and I'll try to add any more great books I've overlooked here if they pop into my head later.

Last edited by Viperlord; May 31st, 2018 at 12:14 PM.
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Old May 31st, 2018, 01:08 PM   #2
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Thank you for the list. The American civilian war is something I've wanted to learn more about. If I do, your list will be useful.
I'll probably finish "Team of rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Have you read it and if you have, what do you think of the book?
I enjoy Ang Lee's movie "Ride with the devil", partly because it shows a part of the war I hasn't seen before. What do you think?
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Old May 31st, 2018, 02:35 PM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Number24 View Post
Thank you for the list. The American civilian war is something I've wanted to learn more about. If I do, your list will be useful.
I'll probably finish "Team of rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Have you read it and if you have, what do you think of the book?
I enjoy Ang Lee's movie "Ride with the devil", partly because it shows a part of the war I hasn't seen before. What do you think?
Team of Rivals is a pretty good political look at the Lincoln Administration. I'm also a fan of Ride with the Devil, it's a solid movie.
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Old June 1st, 2018, 12:33 PM   #4

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Very good list, Viperlord. With regard to those of your recommendations I've read (probably much fewer than I should have read), I wholeheartedly agree. It looks like it took a lot of work. Thanks.
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Old June 2nd, 2018, 03:40 PM   #5
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Time-Life Civil War Series


Back in the 1980's I subscribed to buy the Time-Life series on the (American) Civil War. I still have the 28 volumes, each one about 175 pages. They start with the underlying causes and end with Lincoln's Assassination and a Master Index volume. All told they are an excellent treatment of the entire conflict, with maps, period photographs, and much memorabilia. Have read them through more than once over the years.

I don't remember what I paid for them (like a several-per-year by subscription). I see the set shown on Amazon new for around $300 and used down to $100.

I hope that when I pass (I am 81), one of my children will keep the set together.
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Old June 3rd, 2018, 12:38 PM   #6

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This Hallowed Ground by Bruce Catton is an excellent one volume history of the war from the point of view of the United States. Masterful writing, it succeeds as literature.
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Old June 7th, 2018, 06:31 PM   #7

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Just finished American Ulysses, by Ronald White. For a one volume work on Grant, it's probably the best out there. Very well-written, and it gives the Reconstruction phase of Grant's career and his Presidency the attention it deserves. It's not flawless and tilts too much to Grant in some areas; White seems to badly mischaracterize the command relationships in the Army of the Potomac in 1864 between Grant, Meade, and Sheridan, based on little more than Meade publicly praising Sheridan for Cedar Creek while glossing over everything else that happened between them. The Grant-Rosecrans acrimony and rivalry is given little attention. In regards to his Presidency, White assesses the administration's economic policy in a rather surprisingly positive light without seeming to consider the long-term implications, and he praises Grant for having noble intentions on Indian policy while giving virtually no page space to what actually happens on the frontier in Grant's administration. All that said, it beats any single volume that covers Grant's whole life that I've read so far.
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Old June 7th, 2018, 06:34 PM   #8
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Interesting a subject of which I know little. I'll check some of these at my library.
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Old June 8th, 2018, 07:42 AM   #9

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Viperlord View Post
Just finished American Ulysses, by Ronald White. For a one volume work on Grant, it's probably the best out there. Very well-written, and it gives the Reconstruction phase of Grant's career and his Presidency the attention it deserves. It's not flawless and tilts too much to Grant in some areas; White seems to badly mischaracterize the command relationships in the Army of the Potomac in 1864 between Grant, Meade, and Sheridan, based on little more than Meade publicly praising Sheridan for Cedar Creek while glossing over everything else that happened between them. The Grant-Rosecrans acrimony and rivalry is given little attention. In regards to his Presidency, White assesses the administration's economic policy in a rather surprisingly positive light without seeming to consider the long-term implications, and he praises Grant for having noble intentions on Indian policy while giving virtually no page space to what actually happens on the frontier in Grant's administration. All that said, it beats any single volume that covers Grant's whole life that I've read so far.
How is the one by Ron Chernow? I've been thinking between whether to get that one or the one by White. I've read Chernow's biography of Washington whereas I've never read a book by Ronald White before and I want to know what to expect with regards to the different styles and treatment of these 2 writers.
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Old June 8th, 2018, 07:56 AM   #10

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Good thing i have a kindle now. you could build a mausoleum out off all those books
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