Of Light Bulbs and Switches

15 12 2008

edisonI’ve been considering books that have really impacted how I think about the American Civil War, history and I guess by extension life in general – but let’s just stick to the war and history for now.  I’ll list a few below in no particular order – this is meant as a discussion starter, so I’ll just list them.  You wanna know more – leave a comment; you wanna agree, disagree, add your own – leave a comment (except YOU have to explain yourself – it’s GOOD to be king!)  I’m not talking about “Wow, that was a great regimental/campaign study/biography” stuff.  These are books that made you go “WOW!!! I never thought of it like that”, get it?  They don’t have to be particularly well written or a joy to read, or even among your favorites.  They just must have made a big impact on the way you approach your studies.

These are in no particular order:

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20 responses

15 12 2008
Terry Johnston


Off the top of my head:

Stephen Channing, Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina

Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home

Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns

Thomas P. Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War

Honorable mention:

Randall C. Jimerson, The Private Civil War: Popular Thought During the Sectional Conflict


15 12 2008
Mike Peters


One of your picks — George Adams’ Doctors in Blue — surprises me. How did this book impact you? Have you read it’s Rebel companion by Cunningham? I enjoyed it as well. It just seems a little out-of-place on your list.

Agree with Harsh’s trilogy!


15 12 2008
Jamie Adams

Lowry’s Sex in the Civil War, as previously noted.

Nolan’s Lee Considered, because it raised a lot of questions I had never really considered until then and it also reminded me that a good lawyer does not have to consider both sides of an issue in the same way that a good historian would.

Paludan’s Victims because it was the first real challenge I encountered to the idea that the Confederacy was a monolitic entity where everyone supported the war.

15 12 2008
Stephen Schmidt

You-all have relatively recent books on your list… I started from my grandfather’s collection, and the first thing that comes to my mind is Catton’s AoTP trilogy, “Mr. Lincoln’s Army”, “Glory Road”, and “Stillness at Appomattox.” Granddad was in the US Army Reserves all his life, and while I never spoke to him about it, I think he was less interested in those Rebel types, so he didn’t have Freeman or Foote.

Another thing that jumps out as a book that influenced me is Harry Pfanz’s “Gettysburg: The Second Day” (not sure I have the title right on that) because it set an example for what battle historiography could be.


15 12 2008
Bill Miller aka Wilkes

Hi Harry and Merry Chrismas and keep up the good and important work you do. My list off the top of my head:
Battle Cry of Freedom
Huckleberry Finn
To Kill A Mockingbird

15 12 2008

First, the “Golden Book of the Civil War.” I’m sorry but that should be the standard litmus test for American citizenship. Ok, maybe not. I bet that every one of us read that book at some point in our past. We still place things we know about the war in context of this work. When you visit the battlefields don’t you first think about those “bird’s eye view” picto-maps?

Second, Catton’s two part set on Grant. Before reading it, I had always felt biography was just recounting events of a life spent. Catton went beyond that. It also got me thinking about the myths and “oft told stories.” Gave me the realization that you’ve got to be willing to find the “source” instead of repeating old stories.

Third, Shelby Foote’s Civil War. New idea – the war can be written in good prose. It need not be dry and boring.

Fourth – Paddy Griffin’s Battle Tactics – Sort of like the shift due to Catton, but focused on the tactical aspects of the war.

Fifth – Killer Angles – It can be acceptable to contemplate history in a fictional context and expand upon the facts, for entertainment if nothing else.

Sixth – the Gettysburg trilogy from Gengrich and Forstchen – The realization that fictionalized renditions of the war that make up stuff and explore the alternatives are just plain stupid! (even if fun to read.)

15 12 2008
Susan Sweet

I am newer to the study of the Civil War than many of you but I am old enough that the Golden book of the Civil War came out when I was in college. I just got my copy a couple of months ago at a book raffle. I am working on it on and off at this time.

The first book I read was the first one I bought at a battlefield. Life of Johnny Reb by Bell Wiley. My interest in the Civil War as it is in any of my history studies is the individual people in the story. Johnny Reb told me those personal stories about the soldiers. What they thought and what they did. I later read Billy Yank also.

I joined a book discussion group. The first book we read was Harry Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom The Coming of the Civil War. It was long it was detailed it was at times hard to understand. It made me think. It made me do other reseach to compared his statements to others on the same subject. Four years later much of it still sticks with me when I read other books on the same subject.

Cunningham’s book on Shiloh Campaign made me realized a book on a Campaign can be interesting and detailed on individuals as well as the big picture. I could not put this book down. Was almost as if I didn’t know how the battle ended.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I read this when I was in grade school so you could say this was my first Civil War novel. I have always as I said had an interest in the people in the war. This was a story of how the war had an effect on one family , a family with a father away at war.

Another book I read in college by John Hope Franklin for my Senior Thesis class in research in American history had a major influence in my study of history in general. It was called the Militant South. We were asked to read it with out any background on the author . We then had a discussion in class on the book. The class was pretty much in agreement with the theme of the book. Our professor, Dr. White , then asked us did we know anything about the author . None of us did. He said would you change your opinions if you knew the author was black ? He then pointed out you should always know your historian . The person that writes the book. Then you will know the bias, the slant the book will take . I would say this one book had the most influence on my reading . I look at who is saying what I am reading .
Good discussion Harry thanks for asking .

15 12 2008
Kerry Webb

Flashman and the Redskins – because that’s what got me started

Battle Cry of Freedom – because that gave me an overview of it all

Team of Rivals – because that told me a lot about the key political players

15 12 2008
Harry Smeltzer


Thanks for the comments. Some good ones in there, but they’re all good if they’re important to you. Craig, “The Golden Book” was my first as well, I think back around 1967-68 or so (mine is a 1966 printing – the First Edition is 1960). I still have it – I pulled it down the other day to show my son the “way cool” maps with the little guys. Not surprisingly, the boy (who I think has been pretty much raised by PlayStation) was not too impressed.

Mike, “Doctors in Blue” is on my list because it further demonstrates that the meat and potatoes of the CW is not battles and leaders, but logistics. Outfitting, feeding, caring for, and moving men from place to place. Politicians on both sides – yes, even (and maybe especially) Lincoln – never seemed to get that. As they say, amateurs study strategy and tactics; professionals study logistics (not that I’m a pro). Shoot ’em ups are still fun and way easier to read, but sometimes you need to get your hands dirty and slog through the un-sexy stuff if you want to really understand what the causes of many problems were. Frankly, reading “Doctors” was a real drag. I suspect its target audience was medical folks.

15 12 2008
Will Keene

Some that had an impact on me:

– Grant’s ‘Memoirs’
– Grabua’s ’98 Days’
– Newton’s ‘Lost For The Cause’
– Lossing’s three part ‘Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War’

16 12 2008
Tom Clemens

The Catton books, all of them, got me started.
Lee’s Lieutenants, (still wish someone would do a Union version, and maybe Beattie is…)
As a pre-teen I read “Action Front” a novel, and “Blow Bugles Blow” also a novel, but got me into soldier’s accounts.
Joe Harsh’s triliogy

16 12 2008
Steve Basic


Add me to the Catton folks as well, as those were the first books I ever read about the Civil War. Have yet to read Freeman, but do have the trilogy here and will get to it eventually.

Not sure if any recall the National Geographic Society’s book on the CW that came out when I was a kid, but that was another one that got me interested.

As for recent books, those that stand out with me are David Evans’s book on Union Cavalry during the Atlanta Campaign, Donald Pfanz’s bio. on Ewell, John Waugh’s book on the 1864 election, Ernest Furgurson’s books on Richmond and DC during the war, and Gordon Rhea’s books on the 1864 Campaign in Virginia. Chris Fonvielle’s book on the Wilmington Campaign and Mark Bradley’s book on The Battle of Bentonville are 2 others I would include as impactful books here as I was not all that familiar with what took place at those places before I read the books.

Normally I would include books on Gettysburg, but the first book on Gettysburg I ever got was back in 1973, and it was a coloring book. I was 10 at the time, and did color in the whole book and even stayed inside the lines. :) Wish I knew where that book was now.

Hope all is well.


16 12 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks again to overyone for your thoughts, however this thing kind of went the way I didn’t want it to go. I wasn’t looking for books that “got you started” or simply told you something you didn’t already know, but rather books that hit you like a ton of bricks and really impacted or changed the way you went about your studies and thought about the war and about other books you had already read – quantum leaps, paradigm shifts. (I do think a few of you answered with that in mind.) That’s why I didn’t anticipate seeing things like campaign studies and bios and regimentals, or syntheses like Catton and “Battle Cry”. But that’s OK and, I guess, inevitable. These things take on a life of their own. So keep ’em coming in this vein if you like, or think about it again and leave another note.

Thanks again folks!

16 12 2008
David Corbett

Dear Sir,
The Civil War series of boy’s novels by Joseph A. Altsheler got me interested before the Golden Book of the Civil War. It would be of interest why the books you chose influenced you. For example, the Picket book.
cordially ,
David Corbett

16 12 2008
Harry Smeltzer


I’m glad you asked. Two authors on my list have had the biggest “shifting” impact on my thinking, and Carol Reardon is one of them. “Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory” caused me to reevaluate just about everything I had read up to that point ten or so years ago. If you’re not familiar with the book, it is one of the finest examples in the area of Civil War memory, and spawned numerous like-titled works. The book shows the importance of source evaluation, demonstrates that just about everything – especially what we call “primary sources” – is written with an agenda and the importance of being aware of those agendas. It helped me understand what memory and its effects are, that it’s not simply “time”, that it is immediate. A very important book, IMO.

16 12 2008
Will Keene

I should have added explanations to mine.

Reading Grant’s memoirs was the moment I moved beyond reading contemporary works like Sears and Catton. I replaced the filter of the modern historian for the lens of the participant, changing the way I approached the war. Now I spend more time reading ORs than I do recent books on the civil war.

The perspective of Lossing’s three part ‘Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War’ is very union centric and has a different narrative balance than is typical of modern stuff. As such it also pushed me away from the modern overviews like Foote and more towards looking at what was written at the time.

Grabua’s ‘98 Days’ opened my eyes to the issues of geography and logistics with his discussions of things like wagon capacity and range or the effect of weather on road conditions and visibility.

Newton’s ‘Lost For The Cause’ led me in new directions regarding troop accounting and thinking about the effect of detachments and straggling on force strength.

16 12 2008

Harry, as I think about it more today, Catton’s Grant stands out more as a “turning point” for me personally than about any other. After finishing “Grant Takes Command,” it was like having the lights turn on in a room I’d only seen by shadows before. In my eyes Grant was redeemed from the drunkard, stumbling, butcher often portrayed.

That got me thinking about other personalities. I had the notion that maybe it was good to study on old Braxton Bragg and see if all these stories about him were on the level. Heck, maybe even Ben Butler had a good side? Well let’s not get carried away.

Maybe just short of an epiphany and far short of a paradigm shift. Maybe it was just a headspace and timing adjustment.

16 12 2008
Terry Johnston


An addendum to my list:

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.

A fine study of the Gettysburg Address.


16 12 2008
Bruce Trinque

In more or less chronological order of reading, some books that formed my approaches to the Civil War:

(1) “The Military and Civil History of Connecticut during the War of 1861-65″ by W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris. In 1961, my grandfather gave me the copy of this book that had originally belonged to my great-great-grandfather. It was written largely from newspaper accounts with generous extracts from regimental and battery battle reports. Besides interesting me in the experiences of the 14th Connecticut Infantry, a regiment which usually is close to the center of my Civil War focus, the supremacy of the Official Reports as primary source material was revealed to me.

(2) “A Stillness at Appomattox” by Bruce Catton confirmed me in my orientation towards the Union side of the story (I am, after all, a New England Yankee by ancestry and upbringing; and men from my family wore the Union blue), this book started my deep interest in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns, and showed me that the story of the war could be told as a dramatic narrative of real literary merit.

(3) “They Fought for the Union” by Francis A. Lord began my interest in what might be called the background behind the story: the material and organizational side of things.

(4) “Pickett’s Charge” by George R. Stewart showed me what I still consider to be the best format for getting to the heart of a battle — a microhistory of events, going to the level of small units and even individual soldiers.

(5) “Battle Tactics of the Civil War” by Paddy Griffith spoke to my interest in the “how” of Civil War combat; I might not agree with everything Griffith had to say, but I found his iconoclastic approach wonderfully enlightening.

(6) “The Secret War for the Union: TheUntold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War” by Edwin C. Fishel revealed a new level of “the story behind the story” that I had never adequately considered before.

(7) “Breaking the Backbone of the Confederacy: The Final Battlse of the Petersburg Campaign” (or, “The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Confederacy”) by A. Wilson Greene finally revelaed to me the nature of the final operations at Petersburg. Although I long had been reasonably knowledgeable about the first 9 months of the Petersburg Campaign, somehow the critical final week had remained a muddled vacuum — Somehow, Five Forks seemed to come out of nowhere and instantly led to Appomattox Court House, it seemed. Wil Green’s book finally put events into a proper context and revealed what other movements and operations were going on simultaneously.

20 12 2008

Robert Krick’s Stonewall Jackson At Cedar Mountain. The first microtactical history I ever read. The very level of detail was a supreme challenge as a reader (I remember having to periodically re-read the preceding chapter in order to stay in touch with the entire picture), but rewarding. I didn’t think it was possible/desirable to go to that level of detail; now I’m convinced. I hope to see more of these in the future, especially for the lesser-known battles.

Albert Castel’s Decision in the West. In addition to illuminating that campaign for me (which I had never had a very good understanding of previously), it challenged the conventions of historical writing as I understood it, by virtue of being entirely in the present tense. I know of no other historical study, at least on the Civil War, written in that manner, and I would guess that Castel’s work was probably one of the first.

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