WHEN I WAS ASKED TO CHOOSE FIVE GREAT books on military aspects of the Civil War, I was initially thrilled, then perplexed. The Library of Congress, which by no means houses all Civil War volumes, has at least 100,000 books on the subject in its collections. Attempts to narrow the list to five proved to be an impossible chore. Where would I be able to find room for Douglas Southall Freeman's three-volume Lee's Lieutenants (1946), James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), and the many other great Civil War military books? Ultimately, I chose a handful of very different rifles that have had a lasting influence on me. I cannot imagine five books more insightful than these.
A Stillness at Appomattox (1953)
Several years ago, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where I teach, hosted a Civil War conference. At dinner one evening my department chair, Lloyd Kramer, posed a question to the scholars assembled around the table: What book first piqued your interest in the Civil War? Nearly all of us named The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. It has wonderful photographs, fascinating, hand-drawn battle maps, and, best of all, a terrific text by Bruce Carton. For more than five decades, this book and Catton's words have inspired readers, young and old alike. His single best book is A Stillness at Appomattox, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1954.
Catton (1899-1978) was a newspaperman and government press secretary turned historian who eventually became the editor of American Heritage magazine. In 1951, he published the first in a trilogy about the Union Army of the Potomac. A Stillness at Appomattox is the concluding volume. The book begins in early 1864, with a bizarre plan conceived by an even more bizarre man named Judson Kilpatrick to rescue Union prisoners held on Belle Isle in Richmond, and concludes with Ulysses S. Grant's arrival to accept Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. No Civil War historian ever painted a more vivid canvas with words than Carton, and in A Stillness at Appomattox he is at his best. The character sketches, colorful anecdotes, and sheer drama are all here. Some have researched campaigns more thoroughly, and others have offered more exceptional insights and analysis, but to my mind, no one has ever told a Civil War story better.
The Life of Johnny Reb (1943)
Bell Irvin Wiley's classic study of the common soldier in the Confederate army, The Life o f Johnny Reb, was path breaking when it was published in 1943. A professionally trained historian with a doctorate from Yale, Wiley (1906-80) later wrote a companion volume, The Life of Billy Yank (1952), which is substantively a better book. During World War II he wrote histories for the U.S. Army Center for Military History, where he gained a comprehensive grasp of how armies functioned and were administered, and that knowledge is reflected in The Life of Billy Yank. But there is a deep understanding of--even empathy for--Johnny Reb that Wiley, a native Tennessean, did not display when writing of Union soldiers. He drew on extensive research into soldiers' letters and diaries for the book, which is chockfull of marvelous anecdotes, humorous tales, colloquial expressions, and charming and creative orthography. It covers enlistment to medical care to combat to camp life, all from the perspective and in the words of Confederate "common soldiers:' The Life of Johnny Reb is a social portrait of Confederate soldiers that was a full generation ahead of its time.
Personal Memoirs (1885-86)
I first read Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant in college, when a history professor suggested the two volumes to me. I was immediately entranced. How could this dogged fighter with such a sanguinary reputation write so simply and clearly? Now I recommend them to students with writing problems. He teaches the great gift of simple, effective prose. …