I recently realized that my reading patterns in Civil War history tend to follow individual historians rather than subjects. In other words, when I am looking for books to read I inevitably look at authors rather than subjects. I’m not quite sure how to explain this and I am also not sure when this started. Perhaps this tendency goes back to my time as a philosophy major. My focus was more on individual philosophers rather than subjects. By far my two favorites were David Hume and Immanuel Kant. I was just as content reading Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding as I was reading his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and with Kant it extended from his work in metaphysics to anthropology. Of course there were others, but I was guaranteed to be challenged no matter where I looked in their writings.
On the other hand, my interest in individual historians may be connected to my own limited work in the field. I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult it is to say something new and interesting and I am constantly amazed by how many first-rate minds are currently toiling in this field. I have absolutely no interest reading another book on Lincoln, but I will read anything that Stephen Berry writes. His last book on Confederate soldiers was, unfortunately, overlooked by many. His gender analysis of what motivated southern men to fight and how they defined themselves in masculine terms is well worth a read and moves us beyond unit loyalty, ideology and politics. To a certain extent the subject matters little to me; what matters is that I can anticipate being challenged and learning something new – even with a subject that has been dissected through and through.
Jason Phillips is one of the younger guns in the field. I served on a panel with Jason at the 2007 AHA on Civil War soldiers. His book is based on his dissertation which analyzes the roll of rumor in the Confederate ranks and home front. I see this as taking the concept of contingency one step further. Not only is it important not to read back into the past from a point where the outcome is known, but it is also necessary to distinguish between what seemed to be the case as opposed to what was "true" at any given moment. I read Jason’s recent article "The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence" [Journal of Southern History, (November 2996): 753-89] and was very impressed. Keep an eye out for this one.
Finally, David Blight is set to release a book that contains two slave narratives one of which was used by the NPS at Fredericksburg for their new documentary on civilian life. The book includes an extensive introduction by Blight. My interest in Civil War memory can be traced back directly to my reading of his Race and Reunion. Like many people I can see the book’s weak spots, but its significance must be understood in the way it defined a field of study and has led to a small army of historians who have investigated further the ways in which various groups of Americans engaged in the battle to control the memory of the war. Blight could write about any topic in American history and I would be one of the first to purchase it.