Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Top 50 books

The other day on Civil War Interactive they asked for votes to decide the 50 best books written about the war. They want readers to submit their top three (ranked) and the editors will figure out the top 50, plus someone will win a prize just for entering. The prize is a brand-new copy of the new biography - "Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander." I don't know much about the book but it sounds intriguing, although honestly very few books do not sound intriguing, that's why I'm facing a library of over 1200 books.

I thought it’d make a great post for me. The only limit I put on my list was that I did not want any novels. I love novels, they are what got me interested in the war in the first place but I thought they should be excluded from a list of the best books on the war. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt was the first Civil War themed book I ever read, not sure what grade I read that for but it certainly was a school assignment. I liked it and it stuck in my mind but did not prompt the madness that currently infects me. Years later a buddy suggested I read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and that gave me the full blown disease of the Civil War. But my favorite novel is Shiloh by Shelby Foote. I reread Aprils once, have never reread Angels, but I’ve reread Shiloh a number of times. Its an easy read, doesn’t take long and is well written.

In no particular order ...........

I think Bruce Catton has to be at the top of the list. I’ve never read a bad Catton book. When just voting for three books its tough to pick out one Catton book. I loved his trilogy on the Army of the Potomac and his general war trilogy. I also think the American Heritage book is a great book, a bit dated but still a wonderful book.

Thinking of sets also brings to mind Douglas Southall Freeman’s trilogy, Lee’s Lieutenants. And Bell I. Wiley’s two books on the common soldier (Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank). Another great set is Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War (10 volumes). Ezra Warner’s Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray is another fabulous pair of books.

Two books I could not live without are Fox’s Regimental Losses and Dyer’s Compendium. Just saying “Fox and Dyer” to most buffs is enough. These are not fascinating for the writing, in fact if you read Dyer cover to cover you’d probably be bored silly, but they are fantastic reference books.

I’m having trouble thinking of a general history book, probably because I don’t read these much anymore so its been quite some time since I read one. I liked James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. That might be the best single volume out there. If I had to choose between it and Catton’s trilogy I’d pick Catton but as far as one single book for the entire war goes this is probably the best.

I think Service with the 6th Wisconsin by Rufus Dawes is as fine a memoir as you can find. I have an affinity for the Iron Brigade so I also enjoyed Alan Nolan’s Iron Brigade. No western theater unit history sticks out for me except for William C. Davis’ Orphan Brigade.

I think there are a number of battle studies that should be included on the top 50. I’d pick Edwin Coddington’s Gettysburg Campaign: Study in Command, Stephen Sears’ Antietam: Landscape Turned Red, and the Overland campaign series by Godon C. Rhea. I haven’t seen his newest one (Artillery at Gettysburg) yet but I’m a big fan of Maps of Gettysburg and Brigades of Gettysburg, both by Bradley Gottfried. Surprisingly nothing prior to Antietam comes to mind as a great book in the east. In the west I’d pick Peter Cozzens’ western series, plus his book on Corinth (Darkest Days of the War). I liked Albert Castel’s book on the Georgia campaign, Decision in the West: Atlanta Campaign of 1864. I think Larry Daniels’ Shiloh is the best book on that battle, though I also like the edited version of Edward Cunningham’s Shiloh and Western Campaign. I also enjoyed Tim Smith’s Champion Hill and hope he devotes that kind of energy and depth to Shiloh one day.

A few other books that I enjoyed over the years and/or made me think. Confederate Strategy from Shiloh to Vicksburg by Archer Jones, Let Us Have Peace by Brooks Simpson, Lost for the Cause by Stephen Newton, Controversies and Commanders by Stephen Sears (I wish someone would do this for the western theater), Lincoln and His Generals by T Harry Williams, For Cause and Comrades by James McPherson, Two Great Rebel Armies by Richard McMurry, Fourth Battle of Winchester by Richard McMurry, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert McKenzie Crisis in Confederate Command by Prushankin, Grant’s Lieutenants by Steven Woodworth (I’ve only ever seen volume 1, did I miss the second?) and Attack and Die by Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson.

I think that gives me about 30 books if you count some of those multivolume works as one. There are some great books I know I’m leaving out. I didn’t list any biographies mainly because I don’t read too many of them. I have found some very interesting however many times I’m mainly interested in his Civil War service not his time before or after the war. Sometimes authors treat the war as a minor event in the person’s life. So mainly I read biographies more a reference tool, reading only segments that interest me that day. I’ve read parts of Grant’s memoirs often enough that by now I may have read the whole thing but I’ve never pulled it off the shelf with the goal of reading it cover to cover.

I’ve also not mentioned any guidebooks on my list. I think they are important but most are written to be read on the battlefield and thus are a bit dry when read at home. But they are an essential part of a traveler’s library. I prefer the War College series and books that follow that model. Outside of that series I think the ones that most closely follow that model are the ones being done currently by Matt Spruill. I’m not a big fan of the Hallowed Ground series (various authors but they’ve covered more ground than the War College and Spruill have), primarily because I’m not a huge fan of their maps.

I think my final vote for the three best individual volumes is :
1. Service with the 6th Wisconsin by Rufus Dawes
2. Lincoln and His Generals by T Harry Williams
3. Gettysburg Campaign: Study in Command by Edwin Coddington

I realize these are all considered classics so I decided to do a second list of books that are not yet classics but may one day rise to that level.
1. Controversies and Commanders by Stephen Sears
2. Champion Hill by Tim Smith
3. Maps of Gettysburg by Bradley Gottfried


Theodore P. Savas said...

Hello Nick

Great post. You have opened a fun can of worms.

I think it is difficult to overlook Mark Bradley's "Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville" (an exceptional and groundbreaking study on a par--but not quite as good, in my opinion as Tim Smith's "Champion Hill," which you mentioned), and Chris Fonvielle's "Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign." The latter is an amazing study; nothing quite like it anywhere IMO.

An outstanding artillery unit history is Rick Williams' "Chicago's Battery Boys." This is the only one in which I have a financial interest (added for full disclosure).

Take care.

Best Regards,

Theodore P. Savas
Savas Beatie LLC
989 Governor Drive, Suite 102
El Dorado Hills, CA 95762
916.941.6896 (Voice)
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Don said...


I hadn't heard of Williams' work, though I see it's only been out for a month. This is a different unit from the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, is it not? Curious that the names would be so similar.


Nick said...

Yes this is a fun can of worms. I haven't read Bradley's book, on my shelves but hasn't quite made it to the top of the reading list yet. I don't have Fonvielle's, I'll have to look into that one. And I guess I'll need to look into Williams' too. Thats the fun part of a list like this, it just creates more books you need to find.

Anonymous said...


"Chicago's Battery Boys: The Chicago Mercantile Battery in the Civil War's Western Theater," by Richard Brady Williams has been out since the fall of 2005.

Yes, the Mercantile Battery is different from the Board of Trade Battery.

Mike Peters

Theodore P. Savas said...

Hi guys

Nick--get reading. Call me and I will see you get copies of all these for a reasonable price. I have some clout here. LOL We found a case of the original hardcover of the Chicago's Battery Boys, so the very limited hardcover run is still (barely) available.

The book was put out in late 2005 and quickly sold out. We have a new expanded (with photos) paperback edition.

I would suggest reading the interview with Williams on our site.



Larry said...

I've decided to enter the fray so here are my top three CW books:
1. Perryville: Battle for Kentucky by Kenneth hafendorfer
2. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Frank O'Reilly
3. Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain by Robert K. Krick

Anonymous said...

Hello Nick

Can't help myself but weigh in on this subject. Regarding campaign studies, there are so many that are outstanding.

I agree with Ted Savas that Chris Fonvielle's study on Wilmington is one of the best. Some others I like are:
Darkest Days of the War - Cozzens
Pea Ridge - Hess & Shea Really looking forward to the study on Prarie Grove.
Return to Bull Run - Henessy Wish he would do some more writing.
Shiloh and Embrace an Angry Wind - Wiley Sword Both are also very collectible in first printings.
I like most of Stephen Sears's campaign studies. I think his study on Antietam might be the best?
Looking at some of the other western battles,
Perryville - Hafendorfer is also real entertaining.
Concerning Chickamauga, I think the best book on the subject is soon to be published.
Decision in the West - Albert Castel is by far the best volume on the Georgia Campaign.

I understand The Fredericksburg Campaign by O'Reilly is also well received, need to read it myself.

However, my favorite campaign studies are Gordon Rhea's 4 soon to be 5 volumes on the Overland Campaign. They can be read separately or as a group. Really doubt anyone will ever publish anything that will be this good on that campaign.
Look forward to what other readers think of these choices.

Continue the good work on your blog
really enjoy it.

Don Hallstrom