Thursday, November 27, 2008

Holiday Books: Civil War

Only 28 shopping days until Christmas!

The 2008 Holiday Book Sale continues with a bonanza of excellent titles about The War. (When a Southerner says "The War," there's never any need to wonder which war he's talking about.)

Shelby Foote's epic trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, should be in every American home. Foote sought to write a history worthy of Homer, and that high ambition makes his account a genuine classic. Foote's work is especially important because of the attention he gives to the Western theater of the war, which is sometimes slighted by historians more fascinated with the war in Virginia. Douglas Southall Freeman was arguably the greatest historian of the war, and his magnificent 4-volume biography of R.E. Lee -- now available in a 650-page abridged version -- and his Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command are must-have titles for any serious student of the war.

Bruce Catton was not only an excellent historian, but a great prose stylist, and I heartily recommend his account of U.S. Grant's wartime leadership, Grant Moves South: 1861-1863 and Grant Takes Command: 1863-1865. Perhaps no campaign of the war was more fateful than W.T. Sherman's advance through Georgia to capture Atlanta in 1864, and Albert Castel's Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 is the best chronicle of that dramatic chapter of the war.

Finally, every student of the war should try to get past the interpretations of historians and see the conflict as it was seen by the men who fought it:

  • Richard Taylor's wonderful Destruction and Reconstruction is a book that every student of the war should read. The son of President Zachary Taylor, Gen. Richard Taylor commanded a brigade under Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign of 1862, later defeated Gen. Banks in the Red River Campaign, and in 1865, surrendered the last Confederate army east of the Mississippi. A Yale graduate with a sarcastic wit, Taylor filled his memoir with clever literary and historical allusions that will bring a smile to the face of the erudite reader.
  • Henry Kyd Douglas was a Marylander who served under Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, and his memoir, I Rode with Stonewall, is one of the best of its kind. Of particular interest are Douglas's memories of famed artillerist John Pelham and his account of the Battle of Sharpsburg, which was fought in his own backyard, so to speak.
  • Robert E. Lee called James Longstreet his "war horse," and Longstreet's From Manassas to Appomattox is the only account of the war written by one of Lee's corps commanders. While many dispute Longstreet's version of events at Gettysburg -- the most controversial episode of his career -- it is nevertheless an invaluable first-person account by one of the most important soldiers of the war.
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