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.