• Help me learn new things in 2018 – The Civil War! (What should I read?)

    I’m going to spend May and July (with a break in between) learning about the history of The Civil War. Since there are two months, I’ll read more than ususl. You’ve already given me some great ideas. I want to post them here, so you can help me prioritize what to read. If you think I’m missing something, please tell me. I’m opening comments, or you can tweet me.

    1. A lot of you said “Anything by Foner”. Please be more specific. 🙂
    2. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson
    3. Grant, by Ron Chernow
    4. Some of you said “Bruce Catton’s 3-book history of the Civil War”. Which one? 🙂
    5. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor
    6. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household, by Thavolia Glymph
    7. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

    What do you all think? Any thoughts on the order?


    • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Won the Pulitzer in 1975. Historical fiction. The unofficial civil war gateway drug.

    • I just finished the entire Oxford History of the United States series, of which Battle Cry of Freedom was the best of the bunch. It’s clearly the best single-volume history of the Civil War.

    • I recommend a thorough and complete 24 hour audio lectures by Gary Gallagher on The Great Courses: The American Civil War: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/american-civil-war.html.


    • I binged for some 10-years on Civil War reads–heck, I knew those characters better than my own family and friends!

      But you gotta put this guy at the top of the list: Shelby Foote’s 3-volume Civil War. You can’t put them down! I wore out at least one paperback *set* then switched to Kindle–they’re mine forever!

      Here’s one for the future ,should you catch the Civil War bug: The Dred Scott Case – Don E. Fehrenbacher. Big book, same story: you can’t put it down. It, too, is in my permanent re-read periodically pile.

      Enjoy your journey!

    • I’m surprised Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is not on your list. It’s a modern classic. I would also consider Grant’s or Sherman’s memoirs. Shelby Foote has his three volume history as well. It’s very easy to read though It focuses mainly on the military history and many would say it embraces aspects of the Lost Cause narrative. Still a good read though …

      And if you’ve never read Lincoln’s letters and speeches, they are worth the time.

    • You might consider Grant’s own autobiography as well, but you have a great list there already. Chernow’s Grant is very good. If you’re focusing mostly on the Civil War, though, I think Jean Edward Smith’s Grant is quite excellent. Smith is less good than Chernow for the post Civil War life of Grant, though (and Chernow certainly probes Grant’s psyche more).

      I’d recommend starting with Battle Cry of Freedom since it does an excellent job of summarizing the Civil War in a single volume, but with a good list like that, it probably won’t matter much what order you go in.

    • hi,

      A really good list. Lots of folks like Shelby Foot’s three volume tome, although I had a hard time finishing it.

      Btw, any thoughts on reading books on Kindle versus physical books. I like the convenience of Kindle and audiobooks but somehow I remember and enjoy the reading more when I have a physical book in my hand. Also, I like paperback versus hardcover – go figure.

      Good luck on your reading list for this year. I am pulling for you!

    • I’d say anything by Shelby Foote.

    • Harry V. Jaffa: Crisis of the House Divided. An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

    • Specifically recommend Foner’s Gateway to Freedom on the Underground Railroad.

    • I’d start with McPherson to get into the whole topic with a pretty terrific overview, obviously well written.

      If you haven’t ended your search can highly reccomend The Fall of the House of Dixie. Great viewpoint inside parts of the Sout.

    • A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877
      Book by Eric Foner

      Great explanation of how we got to where we are now.

    • Start with Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Blight!

    • Ron Chernow’s Grant is excellent! As is Battle Cry of Freedom.

      I’ve always found Shelby Foote to be a bit of a southern sympathizer, but he’s a good read and interesting perspective so long as your cognizant of it.

      Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, while more about the legacy of the Civil War rather than the war itself, is also a great one.

    • I second reading Grant’s memoirs. It isn’t for nothing that Gertrude Stein called him the best prose writer in American history. You read him and you can see why the Confederacy lost the war once he took over. That he wrote the entire thing in pencil while dying of throat cancer makes it even more impressive.

    • In general: the history of the Civil War, leaving out strictly-military history, is extremely politicized. It is worth reading older histories, where the politicization is more apparent. I’d read only one of the modern (post-1970) social historians, and read more primary sources and older histories.

      On your list, I’d strongly second “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” I’d recommend one of Catton (the series that starts with “The Coming Fury”) or Foote, but not both.

      I’d second the suggestion of “Crisis of the House Divided.”

      I’d add:
      Jefferson Davis “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”
      Grant’s Memoirs
      Alexander Stephens “A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States”
      Eugene Genovese “Roll Jordan Roll”
      Mary Chestnut’s diary (maybe-it’s a bit hard to follow if you don’t already have a picture of the War in your mind)
      Sherman’s memoirs (maybe–they’re less interesting than Grant’s)

      I think of Foner as more a historian of the Occupation/Reconstruction era than of the Civil War itself. (“Reconstruction” is well worth reading, but it’s a postwar story.) I’d read it along with W.E.B. du Bois “Black Reconstruction” and Claude Bowers “The Tragic Era.”

    • American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally provides an interesting perspective on history surrounding the Civil War through the biography of a Tammany politician turned general. A little over-detailed, but skimming past that, it is a fascinating story and window into so many things in U.S. politics that have and have not changed.

    • If you want a fun read, check out Big Bad Ironclad by Nathan Hale – a graphic novel of the race to create an iron clad ship. (also fun for kids)

    • Here3 are some published observations/arguments dating from the 1850s and 1860s. It is interesting to see how contemporaries evaluated the war.

      Southern Wealth and Northern Profits;Thomas P Kettel;1860 (available on Google Books)
      The Harmony of Interests-Agricultural, Manufacturing and Commercial;Henry C. Carey;1856 (available on Google Books)
      Crimes of the Civil War and Curse of the Funding System;Henry Clay Dean;1868 (available on Internet Archive)
      Sociology for the South-Failure of Free Society;George Fitzhugh;1854 (available on Internet Archive)
      Cannibals All-Slaves Without Masters;George Fitzhugh;1857 (available on Internet Archive)
      The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It;Hinton Rowan Helper;1859 (available on Internet Archive)
      Slavery Was Not the Cause of the War Between the States: The Irrefutable Argument.;Gene Kizer, Jr.;ISBN: 985363274
      War for What;Francis W. Springer;ISBN: 931709113
      Blood Money, The Civil War and the Federal Reserve;John Graham and David Aiken;ISBN: 1589803981
      The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look at the Slavery Issue;Lawrence R. Tenzer;ISBN: 962834807
      They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America;Michael Hoffman;ISBN: 929903056
      Europeans and the Rise and Fall of African Slavery in the Americas: An Interpretation;David Eltis;American Historical Review, Dec 1993
      A Jeffersonian View of the Civil War;Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD;https://www.lewrockwell.com/2001/09/donald-w-miller-jr-md/a-jeffersonian-view-of-the-civil-war/
      Origins of the Southern Labor System;Oscar and Mary F. Handlin;The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1950), pp. 199-222
      The Secret History of Race in the United States;Daniel J. Sharfstein;The Yale Law Journal Vol. 112: 1473
      Charles Dickens and the American Civil War;John O. Waller;Studies in Philology, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Jul., 1960), pp. 535-548
      The Central Theme of Southern History;Ulrich B. Phillips;The American Historical Review, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Oct., 1928), pp. 30-43
      Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist study guide;J. Kowalczyk;https://www.monticellocollege.org/sites/default/files/files/federalist-vs-anti-federalist.pdf
      Abraham Lincoln Peoria Speech, 1854;Abraham Lincoln;https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm

    • Pickett’s Charge by George R. Stewart, while admittedly narrow in focus, is a fascinating account of one day in the war.