My 2016 Best Picks For Civil War Monitor

Once again I had the chance to highlight a couple of my favorite Civil War titles of 2016 for The Civil War Monitor magazine. In addition to my picks, you can read those of A. Wison Greene, Andrew Wagenhoffer, Joan Waugh, and Gerry Prokopowicz. Together we give you plenty of titles to consider.  It’s never easy, but here they are. Thanks to Terry Johnston for the invitation.

My Top Pick: Since the release of the Academy-Award winning movie, Glory, twenty-five years ago our memory of the black soldier experience continues to be dominated by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Douglas Egerton’s highly readable new book, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (Basic Books), explores this famous regiment, along with the 55th Massachusetts and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. For those people familiar with the movie this book dispels some of the myths it introduced. For example, these units were made up primarily of free blacks and not fugitive slaves and they did not suffer for a lack of weapons and uniforms during their training. Egerton thoroughly explores the protests over unequal pay within the broader context of a national debate over what service in the military might mean for African Americans who helped to save the Union. The author does an adequate job of exploring the battles and other military operations carried out by these three units, including their brief time in South Carolina during the first few months of Reconstruction. The final chapter follows many of the veterans through the many challenges experienced on the racial front and the steps taken to commemorate their service in the war, which led to the dedication of the famous monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his men on the Boston Common.

Honorable Mention: Confederate leaders dreamed of establishing a slaveholding empire. That dream, according to Matthew Karp in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press), extended back as far as the 1830s in response to Britain’s decision to end slavery in within its empire. Southern leaders such as John Calhoun, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Abel Parker Upshur believed that a large navy was necessary to protect America’s slaveholding interests in the face of slave unrest in the Caribbean and other parts of the Western Hemisphere. Ultimately, it was a strong national government that guaranteed the protection of slavery in places like Texas, Brazil, and Cuba right up to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The formation of the new Confederate States of America represented the best opportunity to protect its slaveholding interests and shape the future of the Atlantic World.

Looking Forward To: We know very little about the establishment and operation of Contraband Camps during the Civil War. In her recently released study, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (Knopf), Chandra Manning provides the first comprehensive examination of these camps to be published and is sure to enrich our understanding of how freedom came for so many slaves by emphasizing the many challenges and dangers that they faced along the way. Next year one of my favorite Civil War historians, Stephen Sears, is coming out with a new book: Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac (Houghton Mifflin). I can’t wait for this one. Enough said.

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7 comments… add one
  • Douglas Egerton Nov 13, 2016

    Well, I’m honored. A bit stunned, too. Many thanks for your kind words.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2016

      Well, you shouldn’t be. It is an excellent book and I was very happy to give it the recognition that it deserves.

  • Craig L Nov 13, 2016

    Does it draw much from William Dobak’s ‘Freedom By The Sword’? It’s one of the few recent books I’ve found that deals at length with the Column From Pensacola. I don’t have a copy of it, but relevant chapters are accessible online.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2016

      Hi Craig,

      I reviewed Dobak’s book when it first appeared. It is an incredibly thorough traditional military history, but it doesn’t explore much beyond that. Egerton’s book explores the social history of these units, the politics surrounding their organization and support during the war, especially throughout the pay crisis and a concise overview of the postwar period. It’s all there.

  • Terry Johnston Nov 13, 2016

    Always a pleasure, Kevin. Appreciate your take on things as usual.

  • Joshism Nov 15, 2016

    I’m happy to hear Sears has a new book. His works were among the first I read when I really started diving into Civil War history.

    • Shoshana Bee Nov 18, 2016

      I am glad to know that I am on the right track: I have read Sear’s Gettysburg, and I have Chancellorsville sitting on the shelf to read after I get through the Pfanz’s Gettysburg trilogy 🙂 I wish I could read faster!

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