November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
No one has ever come up with a satisfactory count of the books dealing with the Civil War. Estimates range from 50,000 to more than 70,000, with new titles added every day. All that can be said for certain is that the Civil War is easily the most written-about era of the nation’s history. Consequently, to describe this 10-best list as subjective is to stretch that word almost out of shape. Indeed my association with 2 of the 10 may be regarded as suspect. My reply is that this association made me only more aware of the merits of these titles.
Silently transmuting “books” into “works” allowed me to include a pair of dual selections. In the case of Bell Irvin Wiley’s classics there is justification for this, for
No campaign or battle histories are on the list, for good reason: There are simply too many first-rate ones to choose from. The outburst of Civil War writing over the past two or three decades has left no important battle unrecorded, all of them covered at least competently and many superbly. There are also too many well-done unit histories to permit selecting a best one, and of a seemingly endless list of biographies, only those of the two most important figures can be represented here.
For those willing to absorb their Civil War history in longer takes, there are of course three classics: Allan Nevins’s all-inclusive four-volume study of the war years,
by James M. McPherson (1988; Oxford). This one-volume study of the Civil War apparently met an unfulfilled need: It was 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and sales during its first decade exceeded 500,000 copies. He and his publisher, said McPherson, “were equally astonished by the book’s commercial success.” In fact, no previous author had come close to matching McPherson at melding all the military, political, economic, and social aspects of the era into a single narrative. Nor has any author matched him since. Battle Cry of Freedom is a long read (900-plus pages) but engrossing and immensely rewarding.
by William C. Davis (2002; Simon & Schuster). “The Confederacy has always been a great story,” Davis writes in his preface, and then he proceeds to do full justice to the tale. Confederate history balanced on a dilemma: “Throughout there runs a thread of a people whose rulers were trying to bring a link from their past into a new nation in a modern world, to create what they thought they wanted without giving up what they thought they needed.” Davis explains it all crisply and authoritatively, leaving the reader with the distinct impression that this is how it really was in Dixie.
by David Herbert Donald (1995; Simon & Schuster). Harvard’s Donald shaped this monumental biography, he tells us, around “Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him. It seeks to explain rather than to judge.” The result emphasizes the sixteenth President’s astonishing capacity for growth, the trait that enabled “one of the least experienced and most poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become the greatest American President.”
by Bruce Catton. The Union’s greatest soldier, superbly delineated by the Civil War’s greatest historian. This is purely military biography. Grant Moves South carries the story through Vicksburg, and Grant Takes Command concludes it at a grand review in May 1865. Carton’s eye for “the unpronounceable man” is unerring.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.