Civil War Monitor’s Best Books of 2015

This year I was once again asked to select some of my favorite Civil War titles from 2015 for The Civil War Monitor magazine. It’s always difficult to narrow it down, but I gave it a shot. You will also find lists from Elizabeth Varon, Brian Matthew Jordan, Ethan Rafuse and Andrew Wagenhoffer, whose selections could just as easily have landed on my list. As you can see it was a good year for Harvard University Press.

After AppomattoxTop Pick: Gregory P. Downs’ After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press) challenges the notion that Confederates were prepared to acquiesce after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Indeed, he argues that a state of belligerency continued to define life in the South until 1871. Downs shows how federal military occupation remained a potent force during much of this period as the government attempted to protect the freedom and civil rights of the African-American population. Clearly influenced by America’s occupation experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Downs argues convincingly that force was a crucial component of democracy’s  short-lived life in the postwar South. This book is a must read.

61f03J7UMJLHonorable Mention: In Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard University Press), Adam Rothman tells the story of Rose Herera, a Louisiana slave whose young children were taken from her when their owners’ family fled to Havana in the wake of the Union occupation of New Orleans in 1862. rose, who considered her children to have been kidnapped, struggled to get them back, her cause eventually being taken up by the U.S. Senate and State Department. It’s a powerful tale, one that explores myriad issues, including the end of slavery in the U.S. and the scope of African-American civil rights. This is a wonderful book.

Thomas BrownLooking Forward To: In the wake of the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last summer, Americans across the country are rethinking how the Civil War should be remembered in their communities. I have a feeling that Thomas J. Brown’s Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press) will get us closer to appreciating these places’ evolving meaning with some much needed historical context. Coming net year is Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition ((Yale University Press), a book that looks to case a wide net in its handling of the abolition movement by expanding its scope beyond the typical short list of white reformers to include black and white men and women, free and enslaved, who struggled to find common ground on the question of slavery’s future. The book also places America’s abolitionist struggles within a broader transnational context.

Feel free to share your favorite Civil War book of 2015 or anything else that you would like to give a nod to in the comments section below. And if you have not done so already, do yourself a favor and subscribe to The Civil War Monitor magazine.

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6 comments… add one
  • Patrick Young Nov 21, 2015 @ 12:46

    I got the chance to read a lot of this year’s best books. So let me have a whack at pointing out some of my favorites.

    After Appomattox was one of my favorites this year. The enjoyment was doubled by the online interactive maps that grew out of the book. This was a great idea.

    Jason Silverman has written a short, scholarly, and eminently readable book, Abraham Lincoln and the Immigrant, that examines Lincoln’s personal relationships with immigrants, his integration of the immigrant into his understanding of the Declaration of Independence, and his practical political handling of immigrant communities. At just over a hundred pages, it can easily be read in a few nights, yet it will leave you thinking for weeks. Lincoln and the Immigrant (Concise Lincoln Library) by Jason H. Silverman published by Southern Illinois University Press 160 pages (2015)

    Christian Samito has a book in the same series on Lincoln and the 13th Amendment that appeared in September that I also have read and that I strongly recommend.

    A popularly written book on immigrants in the war that appeared this year is Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War. This book is published by the National Park Service and is similar to the guides that are available at many Civil War battlefields. It is beautifully illustrated, and because of its high graphic content it is very accessible for middle school and high school students, but it will not disappoint adults.

    Alison Clark Efford’s new book German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era is an excellent contribution to the study of German immigrants during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Professor Efford traces the evolution of German immigrant views of the citizenship of immigrants and blacks. Germans began as among the most vocal advocates of citizenship rights for blacks. Efford traces the path these liberal immigrants took towards increasingly tepid support for equality. This is really an amazing book. You will gain new insights on every page.

    I loved Elizabeth Varon’s book on Appomattox. It really changed the way I think about the surrender. It is a must read. Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War

    Martha Hodes in Mourning Lincoln gives new perspectives on a much studied event.

    I found Thomas J. Brown’s Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina fascinating, although I wish it was longer, which, I guess, is a good thing.

    Jonathan D. Sarna’s new book, Lincoln and the Jews: A History, traces the president’s relationship with individual Jews and the national Jewish community through primary source documents. In spite of the title, this is more of a coffee table book than an in-depth history. It is attractive, but it could use more text.

    Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration among Civil War Veterans by Keith Harris came out at the end of last year, so I will include it here. It is so nicely written that anyone who picks it up will find joy on its pages. This book explores commemorative traditions developed by Union and Confederate veterans after the Civil War. The author, Keith Harris has a deep knowledge of a breath of post-war writings and activities by veterans and their organizations. His research shows that Civil War veterans were not quick to reconcile with their old enemies, that they sought to control how their respective struggles were interpreted by coming generations, and that they maintained strong commitments to elements of the causes that they had fought for.

    Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Matthew Jordan is another important contribution to the field of veterans studies. There was so much in here I did not know.

    There are at least a dozen other new books that came out since last Thanksgiving that I recommend. But I don’t have enough time to go into them all right now.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2015 @ 14:32

      Thanks for sharing, Pat. I’ve read many of the books on your list as well. All are worth mentioning.

    • creativetensor Nov 21, 2015 @ 18:57

      Thanks for the succinct, fresh, insightful summaries. Definitely going to try to read some of these.

    • Rob Wick Nov 22, 2015 @ 8:19


      There was a book published in 2014 called “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham” by Gary P. Zola that is more of what you would be looking for. Not only does he explore Lincoln’s history with Jews but he also discusses how Jewish historians remembered Lincoln, focusing on Isaac Markens and Emanual Hertz. He and I corresponded as I have been trying to discover what happened to Hertz’s personal papers. Although Hertz had a well-deserved bad reputation among Lincoln scholars, he also produced a book called “The Tribute of the Synagogue” that was a collection of temple sermons after Lincoln’s assassination. It’s very rare and hard to find but a good library would have it.


  • Terry Johnston Nov 20, 2015 @ 19:19

    Kevin … Thanks again for taking part this year … always a pleasure to have you do so.

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