The Five Most Influential Civil War Books of the Last Twenty Years (as if that’s possible Brooks)

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).

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9 comments… add one
  • Charles Bowery Mar 15, 2008 @ 8:54

    I think these “Top” posts are always entertaining and illuminating, so thanks. _Lee’s Miserables_ would have to be in my top five for the past twenty years. Simply a magnificent book IMO.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2008 @ 10:38

    A friend of mine who is finishing a dissertation on the Civil War at the University of Georgia sent this “Top 10” list along for your consideration.

    1. Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War (for reasons already discussed)
    2. John Inscoe and Robert Kenzer ed. Enemies of the Country: New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South (launched a whole lot of new work that has yet to be published)
    3. William Freehling, The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (The best and most innovative challenge to the Gallagher school. Should be read in tandem with Blair, Virginia’s Private War and Gallagher, The Confederate War.)
    4. Stephen Berry, All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South (Hands down the most important work on gender and male motivations during the period to appear in recent memory. An excellent companion to Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over or McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades).
    5. Peter Carmichael, The Last Generation (Methodologically, it is the most innovative work to emerge from the Gallagher school).
    6. Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over (Basically said what many of us had been thinking for about a decade in a very elegant way and is probably the best researched work I have seen in years.)
    7. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering (Is sure to inspire many dissertations into the subject).
    8. Daniel Sutherland, Guerrillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front. (His new work isn’t out yet, but this work clearly has influenced a lot of folks working on dissent, political loyalty and guerrilla violence.)
    9. Gregory Urwin, Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals sin the Civil War (Again, this one will likely inspire many.)
    10. Paul D. Escott, Military Necessity. (The first serious attempt to tackle Confederate military policy toward its own civilian population in a systematic, South-wide analysis. The closest thing we have to Grimsley for the Rebs).

  • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2008 @ 10:36

    Chris, — The Ayers book is indeed an excellent choice. Unfortunately, given Ayers’s employment as president of the University of Richmond there is no telling when the next volume will be released.

  • Chris Paysinger Mar 10, 2008 @ 12:27

    I agree with placing Rable’s book on the list. He broke new ground on campaign studies.

    One book that is on my list is Ed Ayer’s _In the Presence of Mine Enemies_. For me, he set the standard on good narrative with solid analysis. All community studies will no doubt be judged by that for many years.


  • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2008 @ 6:46

    Mark, — Thanks for the comment. One sign of a book’s importance is it it influences other areas of historical inquiry.

    Neal, — I would definitely recommend McPherson’s _Battle Cry_, along with Eric Foner’s masterful, _Reconstructin_. As for some other suggestions for a Civil War neophyte, how about checking out David H. Donald’s _Lincoln_, Drew Faust’s _This Republic of Suffering_ and Stephen Sears’s _Gettysburg_.

  • Mark Stoneman Mar 9, 2008 @ 21:52

    Michael Fellman’s book was instrumental in helping me understand relations between French civilians and Bavarian soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. My MA thesis is full of footnotes to it, as is my article in War in History.

  • Neal Mar 9, 2008 @ 17:26

    Thanks for the recommendations. There’s no doubt I’ll be getting to your 5 sooner or later…

    For now, is there any chance you might give us your top 5 books to get a Civil War neophyte up to speed? I know as much as the next guy who took AP US History (IB, to be more precise) and a lone American History survey course in college, but as I aim to teach history in the not so distant future, I need to build on that.

    I’m assuming Battle Cry of Freedom is a given (is it?). What should be my next 3-4?

  • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2008 @ 7:00

    Of course it is impossible. Remember that the challenge was to pick five books published within the last 20 years. Wiley and Edwards clearly do not fit and I have to admit to never heaving heard of the latter. I read Desjardin’s book, but it is hard to see why you would choose it over Carol Reardon’s study of Pickett’s Charge which was published in 1997 and is much better written. Glatthaar’s book on black soldiers clearly deserves a place at the top. No debate there. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Shane Christen Mar 8, 2008 @ 21:24

    I can see no way to pick just five of the most influential books on the Civil War. It is a diffiult task. It’s far easier to pick the five most damaging to history IMO.

    I was quite unimpressed w/ Rable’s Fredricksburg Fredricksburg and to be honest was suprised to see it listed. I know my own bias is towards the western theatre of the war; I can find little fault w/ your top 5. Though I think Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War should have made that list.

    Edwards, William B., Civil War Guns, The Stackpole Company, 1962.

    Edwards was really the first in my opinion to seriously look at what it took to arm both sides and the reality, advancements and effects of the weapons of the Civil War. While dated it is a work by which others of its kind must be judged.

    Glatthaar, Joseph T., Forged in Battle The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, The Free Press, 1990.
    Glatthaar’s work is an important one alongside Trudeau’s simialr one in scope and scholarship.

    Sword, Wiley, Mountains Touched With Fire, St Martins Press, 1995.
    For me Sword opened up entirely new avenues of study with this work and I think explained the problems with the CS high command. It also went very far in explaining the how and why of of the “west” deciding the outcome of the war.

    Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Life of Billy Yank, Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

    Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Life of Johnny Reb, Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

    I include both Wiley’s works as, to me, they are one work that details the life and trevails of the average soldier in the mud. The men on the sharp end.

    Desjardin, Thomas A. These Honored Dead, Da Capo Press, 2003.

    While not the most influential by any means and not really appropriate for such a list I feel it is a work that is a must read for anyone honestly interested in the Civil War and how its history has been written.

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