Civil War Dopers...... what are the best books?

Shelby Foote and James McPherson’s works are too easy… but who am I to say you shouldn’t mention them.

I’m particularly interested in bios and campaign/battle studies… but that’s just me.

The books by the Shaara’s (Michael and Jeff, father & son), Killer Angels and Gods and Generals, are pretty darn good.

Historical fiction, true, but I got a much better understanding of general strategies, tactics, politics, and personalities through the narratives than I ever did from a purely factual history book.

I really enjoyed reading Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant back when I was in my Civil War phase (lo about fifteen years ago, so my memory is kind of spotty otherwise). Porter was Grant’s aide de camp (and remained a personal friend long after the war) and was right up close and personal with him during the war, and the book is filled with interesting personal details about Grant and other big-name historical figures that Grant was in contact with.

Biographies of Nathan Bedford Forrest are a sure bet for an interesting and entertaining read – that man was, well, quite a character. He was (IIRC) the only soldier in US history to climb from the rank of private to Lieutenant General in the span of four years, a total backwoods uneducated hick among the ranks of Southern gentlemen in the CSA brass, an excellent soldier and leader who was widely feared by the Union, and also one of the early founders of the Ku Klux Klan. Lots of shades of grey to this man. I think Jack Hurst’s biography (simply titled Nathan Bedford Forrest) is a good place to start.
ETA: Seconding FasterThanMeerkats – you can’t go wrong with The Killer Angels for an incredibly well-written, well-researched historical novel.

*Ordeal by Fire *by Fletcher Pratt. It contains some factual errors, but is the most readable book about the Civil War, IMO. Pratt was L. Sprague de Camp’s collaborator on the Gauvigin (sic) bar and Harold Shea (the Compleat Enchanter" stories. His opinions of the Confederate leadership and why McClellan was a failure are quite interesting.
*The Beleagured City *by Shelby Foote is an account of the Vicksburg campaign & siege.
Bruce Catton’s books

For fiction, Dover Press has an edition of Ambrose Bierce’s stories, including “The Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I highly recommend it.

Just randomly pulling books from the shelves:

Extraordinary Circumstances - The Seven Days Battles - Brian K. Burton
Lee’s Miserables - Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox* - J. Tracy Power

The Devil Knows How to Ride - Edward E. Leslie (Quantrill’s Raiders)

Landscape Turned Red - Stephen W. Sears (Antietam)

Gettysburg: The Second Day - Harry W. Pfanz

Lee’s Tigers - The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia - Terry L. Jones

A quick count shows right around a hundred volumes on the War of Northern Aggression. Name your interest more specifically. I probably have a volume on it.

Biography-wise, might I recommend:

Fighting for the Confederacy - The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander
General A.P. Hill* - James I. Robertson, Jr.

Stonewall Jackson - ibid

Great list Silenus … got anything on Leonidis Polk or Judson Kilpatrick?

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom - One of the best one-volume histories of the Civil War ever, IMHO. Won the Pulitzer Prize, and rightly so.

Geoffrey Ward et al., The Civil War: An Illustrated History - Fewer words, more pictures, if that’s what you’re into, but still very good.

Bruce Catton, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War - A bit dated now, but still excellent.

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln - The best one-volume bio of Lincoln around, I think.

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels - The best single novel about the Civil War. Also won the Pulitzer Prize.

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg - Disassembles and explains the Gettysburg Address - literate, classy and insightful. Another Pulitzer winner.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals - How Lincoln formed his Cabinet and led the nation to victory.

Paul R. Clancy, Ironclad - Good short book on arguably the most important naval battle of the war, the March 1862 clash of the armored warships USS Monitor and CSS Virginia.

An earlier thread that might be of interest: recommend a good general book about the American Civil War - Cafe Society - Straight Dope Message Board

Want to read more about Lincoln? Here’s a great place to start:

And a book to avoid at all costs, despite its popularity:

My husband recommends the book he is currently re-reading, “Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West,” by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess.

You are going to have to go a long way to beat that old war horse, Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac Trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road and Stillness at Appomattox. They may be old, they may be out of date but they are good history and good literature.

On further thought:

Harry W. Pfanz’s Gettysburg books are highly detailed and thoroughly footnoted. George Stewart’s micro-history of Pickett’s Charge has been supplanted by more recent studies but it is still a good read.

You can never go wrong with Battles and Leaders, a source book for every student of the period composed of first person accounts and essays by the people who made the decisions in the field on both sides of the fight and endlessly argued with each other about it afterwards.

If novels count, Kilpatrick is a character of some importance in E.L. Doctorow’s The March (which if you’re not familiar is about Sherman’s March. If you’ve read RAGTIME this book is similar in the way historical and fictional characters interact (and two of the characters are Coalhouse’s parents though it takes place years before his birth).

I’ve mainly read about Polk in books about the Tennessee campaign- I haven’t read an actual bio of him- but those are enough to let you know what an incompetent prick he was. Had he replaced Bragg I seriously doubt there’d have been any difference as far as success in that theatre went.

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution is an excellent treatment of the latter period of the war, and of course the post war period. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a campaign or battle study, but it is very readable.

The Library of America has published the memoirs of both Sherman and Grant, as well as the speeches and letters of Lincoln (in two volumes).

If anyone reading this thread has not yet read Battle Cry of Freedom, allow me to add my recommendation. I just finished it yesterday, and it’s very, very good – an excellent narrative of the war, and I especially appreciated McPherson’s description of the events leading up to the war.

Jesus Hates Zombies/Lincoln Hates Werewolves, Vol. 1.

Bernard Cornwell’s Starbuck series give a good fictional account of the Civil War in the early years from the Confederate side. *Rebel, Copperhead, Battle Flag * and The Bloody Ground cover Bull Run to Antietam.

I can second those volumes of silenus’ list that I’ve read.

Some others from or about the less-told side of the affair, including the most neglected stories of all, the experiences of Southern civilians:

[li] Defend the Valley: A Shenandoah Family in the Civil War, edited by Margaretta Barton Colt. This is an absolute trove of letters and diaries by various members of an extended family, Colt’s ancestors, that sent twelve men to battle with the VMI cadets, Virginia militia, 1st Rockbridge Artillery (commanded by William Pendleton, as depicted in Gods and Generals), and the 2nd and 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiments (like the Rockbridge Artillery, these were elements of the Stonewall Brigade; the 2nd was raised in what later became West Virginia). Primary documents, 1855-1897; this volume 1994.[/li]

[li] The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat, by Gary W. Gallagher. 1997.[/li][li] General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians, by Frank Cunningham. 1998.[/li][li] When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865, by Stephen V. Ash. 1999.[/li][li] A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack, And Destruction of the City of Columbia, by William Gilmore Simms, edited by David Aiken. Primary documents 1865; this volume 2005.[/li]

[li] War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, by Walter Cisco. 2007.[/ul][/li]
Also I have a soft spot for a small book, Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims, edited with extensive comments by James I. Robertson, Jr. While not a biography in any conventional narrative sense, and with no direct remarks by Jackson on the war, it is a unique journey into the mind of a legendary figure. Robertson discovered the unpublished writings in a box at Tulane University in the course of researching his biography of Jackson.

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of books written about the northern/eastern theater (the Army of the Potomac v. the Army of Northern Virginia) as opposed to the western theater (The Army of the Tennessee* v. The Army of Tennessee) which is a pity as the west was not only just as interesting in terms of personalities and battles and blunders but it’s where a lot of the people important in the later years (e.g. Grant, Sherman, Johnston) really made their bones.

The best historian I’ve found of the southern side of the western theatre is Thomas L. Connelly (Army of the Heartland and Autumn of Glory). Both are readable, a bit academically dry but still good. His primary focus is the Army of Tennessee.

If you like fiction, a young adult’s book I heartily recommend (and a quick read) is Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. She based it on her grandfather’s childhood and it’s about a family in southern Illinois who have relatives on both sides and it’s set completely on the homefront at their small farm. The relatively low review average on Amazon comes mostly from people who seemed to think they were getting a war novel (which it is, but doesn’t have battle scenes) and from people who had to read it in junior high.

For the sordid side, there’s The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex and the Civil War. It deals with things like brothels and the astonishingly high rates of STDs and the “soiled doves” of the war, and is a very good read for the life of the common soldier. One of its most memorable segments deals with the nationalization of prostitution in Tennessee by the U.S. government, which actually was one of the most effective government takeovers ever.

(*For anyone not aware, as with battles and campaigns the North often named things for rivers/water while the south did for towns and places; The Army of the Tennessee refers to the river and was the Union forces; the Army of Tennessee refers to the state/theatre and was the Confederacy.)

Ah, and two “never gone out of print in decades” classics in the field just in case you aren’t familiar:

The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy
and its companion

The Life of Billy Yank: the Common Soldier of the Union

both by Wiley and Robertson. They deal with the mundane and not-so-mundane issues like food, hygiene, clothing, and daily life for the fighting men (i.e. not the high ranking officers) on both sides.

Grant’s autobiography was a great read. It was certainly from his point of view but you really get an understanding of the complications of waging the war.

A few more I like:
Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant - James Longstreet and his place in Southern History* - William Piston
On Many A Bloody Field - Four Years in the Iron Brigade* - Alan D. Gaff
If It Takes All Summer - The Battle of Spotsylvania* - William D. Matter
The Shipwreck of Their Hopes - The Battles for Chattanooga* - Peter Cozzens

George R. McClellan - The Young Napoleon - Stephen W. Sears