The 50 Greatest Civil War Books

Head on over to the History Enthusiast for an excellent follow-up to this post. Kristen suggests that the list reflects the state of the field today and how students of the Civil War are still in many ways an “old boy’s club.”

Eric Wittenberg’s latest post includes a list of the “50 greatest Civil War books” compiled by the Old Baldy CWRT in Philadelphia.  The list caught Eric’s attention because it includes his own recent book on Jeb Stuart and the Gettysburg Campaign.  Not surprisingly, the discussion following the post has already turned to the question of whether specific titles deserve to be on the list as well as what was not included.  It’s a monotonous discussion and one that has no end.  Rather than add to that thread it seems to me that we should step back and ask what the list actually reflects.

I have no idea how this list was compiled, but let’s assume that a straightforward poll was taken of all those interested.  Well, if the Old Baldy’s profile is anything like ours here in Charlottesville than it is probably the case that a large percentage are over 55, they have an interest in the Civil War and they enjoy the opportunity to meet up with like-minded folks.  More than likely the majority of the books read were published at the time of the Civil War Centennial along with a few recent titles.  If you know how to interpret this list it is quite revealing.

First, it reflects the overwhelming popularity of battles and leaders.  Our civil war took place on battlefields with little connection to causes and consequences or how the war effected the nation as a whole.  Given the age range of most CWRT members it should come as no surprise that books by Catton, Freeman, Foote, Coddington, Sandberg, Wiley, and American Heritage would make this list.  Since most Civil War enthusiasts and CWRT members enjoy good stories we should not be surprised to find older works of fiction by Crane, Shaara (young and old) and Mitchell.  I’ve found that most people want to hear the same stories told well.  The popularity of Ken Burns’s The Civil War explains titles by Foote and Watkins and that same year saw McPherson’s Battle Cry win a Pulitzer – though I don’t believe most people who own it have actually read it.

Just about all of the more recent titles on this list can typically be found on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble or Borders Books, including Sears, Warner, Goodwin, Buell, Hennessy, Horwitz, Winik, and Bonds.  Some of the authors, such as Robertson and Brown, Kauffman, and Wert are regulars on the CWRT circuit and have also been interviewed for various Civil War documentaries that can be found on the History Channel.  I am not surprised to find Eric’s book on this list as he has done an excellent job of marketing his books through his blog and website and maintains a rigorous speaking schedule around much of the country.

Actually, it’s a perfect list – nothing really needs to be added or subtracted.  It’s a snapshot of our Civil War marketing and memory.

9 thoughts on “The 50 Greatest Civil War Books

  1. matt mckeon

    Kevin,
    Far from being monotonous, quibbling about lists like this is fascinating, which it is why “top ten” lists are an editorial staple.

    In the very nice blog “edge of the American West” they have a list of great “underrated” historical novels. These lists are like crack to me.

    I’ve got to say, and (maybe this is a comment not worth posting), you’re sounding uncharacteristically crabby today.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Matt,

      Actually, I am in a great mood today. :) I am definitely not quibbling about this list; rather, I am trying to understand it. As I said, I think it is quite revealing for what it says about our Civil War community. What’s so problematic about that? Please don’t interpret this in any way as insulting to the people who made this list. After all, they are there as a result of various factors, including marketing, popularity, content, and perhaps even luck.

      Reply
  2. Brooks Simpson

    I dont recall ever seeing a list of top 10-15 books on the coming of the Civil War or on Reconstruction.

    I dont see the list as representative of anything, really, although I do see it as suggestive of what people in the midAtlantic states who attend CWRTs like. No biography of Meade is included, ironically. :)

    I have often found myself asked to speak at CWRTs on Grant (of course), but also on Reconstruction, as an effort to mix things up. Those latter efforts succeed … in reminding me why so many people like Gone With the Wind.

    There is something about a good portion of a Civil War reading public that likes to hear the same story told again and again. But there is more diversity than one might suspect from a simple cursory glance. You just have to look for it.

    Reply
  3. Andrea Jones

    I was glad to see Horwitz’s _Confederates In The Attic_ on there. It’s problematic in places, but I’ve given away about 4 copies at this point to people who ask that pesky “So what’s with you and the Civil War?” question because I think the *feel* of CITA conveys something important. The sense of exploration and the dip of the toe into the (occasionally quite strange) world of Civil War memory seems to be really accessible to people, even foreigners (I’ve sent one copy to the UK and one to Australia) who have no previous experience with the American Civil War.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Levin Post author

    Anonymous,

    No surprise there.

    Brooks,

    Good points, but I am going to stick by my observations. I think they apply beyond the mid-Atlantic region, but perhaps I am wrong.

    Andrea,

    I am not surprised that Horowitz’s book is on the list. I too enjoyed reading it and even used it in my class on Civil War memory last year.

    Reply
  5. Sherree Tannen

    I’ll leave the discussion of the history books to the historians.

    How about discussion of fiction?

    Gone With the Wind is not even good fiction.

    How about Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or Go Down Moses? Or, switching to non fiction, but to work that qualifies as brilliant literature, how about anything written by Frederick Douglass? Or, how about a fictional book that truly impacted the era, Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How about…….?

    Well, I could go on, but I won’t. Thanks, Kevin.

    PS. If any of the books I mentioned are on the list, I stand corrected. I quit reading when I saw Gone with the Wind on the list.

    Reply
  6. Andrea Jones

    Sherree,

    I’m so with you on _Gone With the Wind_. I read it out of a sense of obligation, it seems to be one of those books that you “should” read, a classic, whatever. I cannot believe I actually finished it. I definitely spent the whole book wanting to choke the life out of Scarlet O’Hara.

    Reply
  7. Sherree Tannen

    Oh, lol, Andrea….choking Scarlet O’Hara. I never thought of that! I wonder if that would finally release the grip that Gone with the Wind has on our memory. (The book, and the movie, are important when considering memory. When I was studying literature in the 1970s, Gone with the Wind was not on any reading list as a classic, or even as literature, however. Neither were the books written by many women, except for George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. When I listened to and watched online lectures by David Blight on the Civil War, and Blight discussed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then said something to the effect; “Oh that there were such a book today!” I remember thinking, he really means that! A book written by a woman! Gone With the Wind, though, please. Don’t patronize women. Try Flannery O’Conner, Zora Neale Hurston, or Toni Morrison. )

    Reply

Join the Conversation