The Civil War 1861 To 1865

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by Douglas Southall Freeman, one-volume abridgment by Stephen W. Sears (1998; Simon & Schuster). After completing his magisterial four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, Freeman expressed concern that those lieutenants of Lee’s might have “ridden so far toward oblivion that one could not discern the figures or hope to overtake them before they had passed over the horizon of time.” But Freeman succeeded in capturing all of them, for all time. Published in three volumes in 1942-44, Lee’s Lieutenants remains a paramount example of group biography, and this one-volume abridgment makes that achievement all the more accessible.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War

edited by C. Vann Woodward (1981; Yale). A unique insider’s portrait of life in the war-torn Confederacy. The neutral-sounding title reflects editor Woodward’s brilliant—and Pulitzer Prize-winning—recasting of what was once known as A Diary From Dixie. The “diary” is actually a postwar creation much expanded from a wartime journal. But, as Woodward writes, “Mary Chesnut can be said to have shown an unusual sense of responsibility toward the history she records and a reassuring faithfulness to perceptions of her experience of the period.” Her work remains a vivid evocation of the chaos and complexity of a society at war.

Reveille in Washington, 1860–1865

by Margaret Leech (1941; Avalon). The tale, masterfully told, of the citizens of the nation’s capital, both the leaders and the led, groping toward some understanding of the unimaginable reality of a great civil war at their very doorsteps. A tour de force—and another Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943; Louisiana State) and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952; Louisiana State)

by Bell Irvin Wiley. In the preface to Johnny Reb, Bell Wiley observed that his work was “an attempt to give the man of the ranks, who after all was the army, something of his rightful measure of consideration.” Wiley’s was a truly pioneering effort, constructed almost entirely from soldiers’ letters and diaries and memoirs to portray daily life in camp, on the march, and in battle. No one has ever done it better, and Johnny Reb and Billy Yank still make wonderful reading.

Mr. Dunn Browne’s Experiences in the Army: The Civil War Letters of Samuel W. Fiske

edited by Stephen W. Sears (1998; Fordham). Among the myriad published letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers this collection is unique. Captain Fiske, 14th Connecticut Volunteers, Army of the Potomac, was not only a frontline soldier but an experienced newspaper correspondent as well. Writing weekly to the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican under the nom de plume Dunn Browne, Fiske pulled no punches in these observant, witty, sometimes angry, frequently profound letters from the battle lines to the folks back home.

John Brown’s Body

by Stephen Vincent Benét (1928; Ivan R. Dee). The critic Henry Seidel Canby, in an introduction to Benét’s epic narrative poem, termed it a veritable library of storytelling, “a poem extraordinarily rich in action as well as actors, vivid, varied, and so expressive of many men and moods that prose could never have carried its electric burden.” Good art it is, and good history too, making John Brown’s Body a stunning recreation of the Civil War era.