Brooks Simpson has issued a challenge in the wake of CWI’s highly problematic list of the Top 50 Civil War books of all time:
It’s been twenty years since the publication of James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Tell us what you believe are the five books that have done the most to
transform our understanding of the field of Civil War scholarship since that book appeared.
No doubt few of you will be surprised that my choices are all university press books written by academics. I understand Brooks’s question not in terms of entertainment quality, but in terms of changing the way we think about various aspects of the war or as having a profound impact on the direction of Civil War historiography. Well, here is my list.
1. Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War (Harvard University Press, 1999): Whether you agree with Gallagher’s conclusions or not no one has done more to challenge the “internal” explanation of Confederate defeat. In doing so, Gallagher has refocused attention on the interaction between the battlefield and home front and in doing so has highlighted the ways in which white Southerners identified with the Confederate nation and the war effort long after a simple calculation would have dictated surrender. You can no longer arrive at the conclusion that the Confederacy succumbed to internal fractures without first dealing with this book. In terms of influence, however, look no further than the growing number of books written by his students which cover some aspect of this book: William Blair, Virginia’s Private War (Oxford University Press, 2000), Peter Carmichael, The Last Generation (UNC Press, 2005), Anne S. Rubin, A Shattered Nation (UNC Press, 2005), Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought (UNC Press, 2007), and Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead But Not the Past (UNC Press, 2008).
2. Phillip Shaw Paludan, A People’s Contest: The Union Divided and Civil War, 1861-1865 (Harper and Row, 1988): This is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. Paludan offers a fully integrated interpretation of the North through the war years which combines political, social, and economic history. It turns out that individuals do matter in understanding broad political and economic changes. From the preface:
The experience described here, the impact of the Civil War on Northern society, happened to over twenty million people who lived in a society divided by race, culture, occupation, age, and sex. It happened to people who felt the force of history with widely varied ability to respond. I happened to people whose perspective depended on the place from which they watched the world, whether they looked on as individuals, as members of a little community, or as participants in a national event. No one perspective tells the story, even about one person, for individuals viewed their lives at different times in all these ways. (p. x)
Although social history had been around before the publication of this book it seems to me that Paludan was one of the first to utilize the methodology to the fullest in the context of the Civil War. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at the University of Virginia a few months before his death.
3. George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (University of North Carolina Press, 2002): This is the most creative campaign study to be published in the last 20 years. Rable uses the December 1862 battle to analyze a wide-range of issues from those directly related to the battlefield such as the soldier experience as well as the problems within the Union high command. Those interested in detailed battlefield tactics will be sorely disappointed, but a more sophisticated reader must acknowledge the extent to which Rable reveals just why this battle was so significant and how it impacted the war efforts in both North and South. Some of the most interesting chapters focus on the carnage of the battlefield, the destruction of the town, the battle’s connection to the soon-to-be announced Emancipation Proclamation, and the various versions of news accounts of the battle that made their way around the country. Rable takes a slugfest and tells you what it means that it happened.
4. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001): Read any introduction or preface to a recent study of Civil War memory and you will find a reference to Blight’s award-winning study. It is beautifully written and tells an important story of how whites from both sides of the Potomac sacrificed and “emancipationist” narrative of the war for one that would help bring about reconciliation and reunion by the turn of the twentieth century. No doubt, numerous historians have challenged various points made by Blight, but this only heightens the books importance. On a personal level, the book reinforced for me the importance of critically assessing how we choose to remember and the sometimes disastrous political consequences that the shape of those memories can have on a nation’s progress.
5. Ira Berlin, et. al. Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (New Press, 1992): This may seem like an unusual choice given that it is not strictly speaking an interpretive study; rather, it is a collection of primary sources that have been collected by historians working on the Freedmen and Southern Society Project (1976) out of the University of Maryland. Taken together the numerous books published by the project as well as the scholarship of those who have contributed at one point or another since 1976 constitutes one of the most important historiographical shifts in both slavery and Civil War studies. Fugitive slaves played a central role in the story of emancipation and in the evolution of both the Union and Confederate war efforts.
I could have easily chosen another five just as easily. A few titles that are on my short list include Michael Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1989), Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers (Penguin, 1988), Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (Knopf, 1998).