Same Old, Same Old

Civil War Interactive has released it latest poll of the "Top 50 Civil War Books of all Time."  The list includes some very important titles from the last few decades such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood, and Bell Wiley’s Life of Johnny Reb. What is striking, however, is how few titles fall outside the boundaries of military history.  Doris K. Goodwin’s excellent study, Team of Rivals, Jay Winik’s popular April 1865, as well as Ed Fischel’s study of Union intelligence, but that’s about it.  For the most part the books included in this list reflect a war that is understood in strictly military terms.  There is little interest in the cause of the war or the ways in which the war transformed this nation politically, socially, economically or racially.  Even on a military level, however, the choices fall almost entirely within the battles/campaigns category.  We should keep in mind that most of the people who contribute to discussion boards are primarily interested in military matters so there are very few surprises here.

When CWI first announced the poll I spent a few minutes jotting down titles that I thought would make the list:  Here they are: Shelby Foote’s Trilogy, McPherson’s Battle Cry, Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants, Robertson’s Stonewall biography, Watkins’s Co. H, something by Catton, one of the two Shaaras, one of Wiley Sword’s books, Bel Wiley’s Johnny Reb, Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, something by Stephen Sears, Winik’s April 1865, and Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  Given that a few of my authors have more than one book on the list that’s not too bad for 15 minutes. 

We love our Civil War battles and leaders. Unfortunately, the price is a great deal of ignorance when it comes to the broader questions that those battles helped to settle. 

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6 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2008 @ 16:18

    Eric, — That’s exactly it, which is why I find it so compelling. It’s as if the men just fell from the sky. So, yes I find that compelling.

  • Eric Wittenberg Mar 6, 2008 @ 15:29


    Could it be that the bulk of the folks who voted simply don’t find the issues that you find to be compelling as fascinating as you do?


  • Tim Abbott Mar 6, 2008 @ 13:55

    I inherited a complete 1st edition of the Photographic History of the Civil War, published in 1911 to mark the 50th anniversary. With its compilation of over 3,600 photographs and thousands of pages of data, it was a landmark achievement and put the photograph, rather than the engraving, front and center. I’d have to say if influence and impact are any guides, that this should have made the top 50 list.

    If the question truly did address the most influential books, then 1995’s Don Troiani’s Civil War deserves a mention. You can hardly buy a Civil War history today without finding Troiani’s art on the cover, and all those high end toy soldiers we discussed a few weeks ago are designed by people who pore over Troiani paintings for insight and inspiration. The 28th Massachusetts Irish Brigade flag is the one most often reproduced in toy soldier lines, although this was not the most famous regiment in that outfit. The reason, I suspect, is that Troiani painted it in his depiction of the Union assault at Fredericksburg and it was there for easy reference.

  • Clio Bluestocking Mar 6, 2008 @ 13:21

    Maybe because of the military focus, the list also seems awfully white and awfully masculine in terms of subject. Maybe that’s just a problem with list games, too.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2008 @ 12:45

    Jim, — That’s a great point which I completely overlooked – duh.

  • Jim Schmidt Mar 6, 2008 @ 12:38


    Thanks for the thoughts…it would be nice if they could list all of the nominations, but that would be prohibitive. I think you’d see many more of the titles you hoped for at least nominated, just not in “force.” For my part, although I did include a battle narrative (Landscape Turned Red), I also included some “outside the box” titles, including Mark Wilson’s recent “The Business of Civil War: Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865”

    All My Best,

    Jim Schmidt

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