Best Books about the Civil War: A Special Section on Books Past and Present

By Courteau, Sarah L. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Best Books about the Civil War: A Special Section on Books Past and Present


Courteau, Sarah L., The Wilson Quarterly


ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO, IN the wee hours of April 12, a mortar shell exploded above Fort Sumter, and the American Civil War began. As more than one of the contributors to this special edition of Current Books remarks, the four years of bloody conflict that followed have transfixed

historians and the general public like no other period in the country's history. Many tens of thousands of books have been written on the war, its meaning, and the larger-than-life figures it thrust upon the national imagination. This sesquicentennial year seemed to require a wide-angle view of the best writing about the war.

We asked several prominent writers and historians to single out some of their favorite books on subjects ranging from the war's military campaigns and leaders to the figure whose long shadow falls across it, Abraham Lincoln. We included a list of the best novels written about the Civil War. (Ken Burns has said that he felt inspired to undertake his immensely popular documentary series The Civil War after reading The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara's 1974 novel about the Battle of Gettysburg.) Brenda Wineapple describes the powerful writing that came out of the war itself, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson gives a personal account of the rewards and hazards of studying a conflict that still resonates today. In addition, six scholars review some of the most noteworthy new books in a year that has seen an outpouring of publications about the Civil War.

Though so much has been written about the Civil War, many of us draw our knowledge from two sources, both of which have done as much to distort the war as to commemorate it.

I first learned about the clash of North and South at the knees of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. As a girl, I was blissfully oblivious to all that was misrepresented or left out in Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell's epic historical novel. Since its publication in 1936 and the release three years later of the Hollywood film, historians and others have scorned, with good reason, Mitchell's romantic and decidedly Southern tilt and her crude depictions of plantation slaves. …

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