Posts from the ‘Literature’ Category

11 Best Books on the American Civil War

From James McPherson’s definitive history to Tony Horwitz’s adventures among obsessives, here are the 11 best books on the Civil War in time for the 150th anniversary.

The Best Civil War Books 

by Malcolm Jones The Daily Beast

In his introductory note to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, historian C. Vann Woodward noted that the book, which was part of a 10-volume series on American history, was the only entry in the series to be devoted to a single war. Was the Civil War that important? Certainly the subject is insanely popular with amateur history buffs and even quite a few professional historians. Still, a whole book about one war? Woodward, the editor of the series and himself one of the great authorities on Southern history, defended the decision this way: “There are numerous criteria at hand for rating the comparative magnitude of wars … One simple and eloquent measurement is the numbers of casualties sustained. After describing the scene at nightfall on September 17, 1862, following the battle called Antietam in the North and Sharpsburg in the South, McPherson writes: ‘The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American Warcombined.’ And in the final reckoning, American lives lost in the Civil War exceed the total of those lost in all the other wars the country has fought added together, world wars included. Questions raised about the proportion of space devoted to military events of this period might be considered in the light of these facts.”

Is there an inch of battleground, a day or a minute between 1861 and 1865 left unexamined by some historian somewhere? Surely not. But the library of books about the Civil War that now exists—and is sure to swell during the war’s sesquicentennial which begins this week—is absolutely worth it. The Civil War was not just the bloodiest American conflict. It was also the war that settled who we are as a nation, a war whose outcome and rhetoric have defined us ever after.

Compiling a list of essential books about the war is an absurd task, simply because—no kidding—so many are essential. Try to imagine another subject where you omit writers of the caliber of William McFeely, Bruce Catton, T. Harry Williams, or Burke Davis. So consider this list a mere starting point. The more you read about the war, the more you will want to read (don’t say you weren’t warned). And when you tire of history, there’s Civil War fiction. But that’s a subject for another list. So this list is missing some great ingredients. Still, you have to start somewhere.

Battle Cry of Freedom
By James McPherson

The Confederates don’t open fire on Ft. Sumter until page 273, and if that doesn’t tell you that this historian is all about context, then nothing will. But if ever a conflict wanted context to be understood, this is the war. McPherson begins with a brief look at the Mexican war of 1847, where many of the men who would determine the course of the Civil War first saw combat or held commands. He then moves through Bloody Kansas, Dred Scott, and the various compromises that came and went as an ever more fractured nation sought ever more patchwork ways to hold together. The lesson is clear: battles are fine, but you have to understand the why—the arguments and assumptions and predispositions that led to the battles and in many cases affected their outcome. If any of this sounds dry, it isn’t. McPherson is a skillful writer and a discriminating historian. There are very good reasons why this book is so often called the best single-volume history of the war, and to find out why, all you have to do is open it and read a few pages. After that, it’s mighty hard to stop.

The Civil War: A Narrative
By Shelby Foote

There are things wrong with this epic trilogy—Foote isn’t reliable on the causes of the war, for instance—but what’s right far outweighs the negatives. The author deeply understood the importance of the war in the West—meaning the lower Midwest and the South that abutted the Mississippi. For a Southerner, he is relatively immune to the cult of Bobby Lee. He understands the military mind and what it takes to be a soldier. And he brilliantly shows how Lincoln grew into his job, how he became the Lincoln we know. Most important, no one has ever written so well on this subject, and probably never will. A fine novelist before he tackled the Civil War, Foote displays the novelist’s eye for story and character—the Gettysburg section, in particular, reads like Greek tragedy, full of blood and hubris. Foote thought the Civil War was America’s Iliad, and he caught the epic quality of the conflict he chronicled.

Landscape Turned Red
By Stephen Sears

As a battle, Antietam might be called a draw. The Union held the field at the end of the day, but the Confederate army slipped away without further repercussions. But Sept. 17, 1862 was a memorable day for several good reasons. First, it was the bloodiest single day of an astonishingly bloody war, with casualties (dead, wounded, or missing) for both sides totaling 22,720 men. Second, the Union’s vacillation after the battle gave Lincoln the excuse he needed to sack the irresolute George McClellan as the leader of the Army of the Potomac. Third, because the Union could claim the victory—and at this stage in the war, the North needed every victory it could find—the good news gave Lincoln the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22. Books about single battles are usually fit only for obsessives, but this crucial moment deserves its own book, and Sears gives it a superlative rendering.

By Ulysses S. Grant

After Lincoln and Jefferson, Grant, of all people, was probably the finest prose stylist ever to inhabit the White House. Some of what made Grant a great general made him a good writer as well, notably his ability to balance the big picture with dozens of details. His descriptions of battles proceed almost minute by minute in some cases, but he never becomes mired in minutiae, and the story proceeds with an almost martial tempo. If Grant lacks Lincoln’s rhetorical genius, he makes up for it as an always straightforward stylist who prizes clarity above all.

Mary Chesnut’s Diary

Daily life in the upper-middle class South during the war, as rendered by a supremely self-aware—and ultimately very likeable—lady. The Chesnut diary was one of the first non-military documents whose publication did much to increase interest in wartime life off the battlefield. Open to almost any page and you will see why. She didn’t miss much.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War 
By Drew Gilpin Faust

The Civil War remade many attitudes but none so much as the thinking on death. Carnage and slaughter on a grand scale ground down prevailing notions of the good death and undercut belief in divine providence. Many new ways of thinking about death came out of the war, but none more sweeping than the new expectations of the military—its responsibility to identify, preserve, and honor the dead. This is one of those groundbreaking histories that clarifies a crucial piece of the past previously ignored.

The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans
By Charles Royster

Both sides were guilty of screaming for blood, and both sides got what they asked for and a lot more. The Civil War was not the first total war, that is, a war carried past armed combatants to include civilians and private property. But modern technology—railroads, more sophisticated arms—made slaughter easier, and the vengefulness with which each side went at the other made the killing and burning and looting even more inevitable. The embodiments of this ruthlessness were William Tecumseh Sherman on the Union side and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson on the Confederacy. Their foes demonized them as zealots and fanatics, while their allies hailed them as, well, zealots and fanatics. Their excesses were deemed necessary to victory, but when the butcher’s bill came due at war’s end, four years of horror had numbed all but the most resolute warmongers.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Goodwin portrays Lincoln by portraying the men who competed with him for the presidency, men whom he thereafter drew into his cabinet (keep your enemies close, etc.) to help him prosecute the war. Each man saw Lincoln from a different perspective, but the sum of their perspectives gives a marvelously rounded look at a man who was as hard to define as anyone who has ever occupied the oval office.

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery 
By Eric Foner

Our best historian on Reconstruction, Foner argues that “the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth.” The 16th president did not come out of the cradle as the Great Emancipator. His philosophy matured as he aged, and, because he was a politician always acquainted with what was possible, as opposed to what was desirable or preferable, he trimmed his thinking depending on who he was dealing with and the circumstances surrounding those dealings. He was enigmatic, even to his friends, and he left a scant paper trail—Honest Abe was no confessional diarist. Nor was he always right or always wise. The Lincoln who emerges in these pages is always human and vitally engaged with his times but capable of error and mistakes in judgment. Watching him grapple with the single most important issue of his time, we realize that knowing him completely will always be impossible but that our admiration for him, the absolute right man at the right time, can only continue to grow.

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
By David W. Blight

The Gilded Age author William Dean Howells once said, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” As Blight demonstrates, when they didn’t get what they wanted, they fiddled with the historical record until it came out the way they liked it. Or white people did, anyway. In the half century after the war, the country succumbed to a sort of cultural amnesia whereby a war over slavery became a war over states’ rights. Cause and effect were uncoupled, such that valor might exist in a vacuum—what the fight was about became less important than the way in which it was fought. African Americans had their own counternarrative, but no one else paid attention to theirs as everyone rushed to embrace reconciliation of the two halves of the country. In the white man’s playbook, healing trumped everything, with the result that the real lost cause was truth. The North may have won the war, but the South dictated the terms of the peace for almost a century.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
By Tony Horwitz

This absurdly fascinating book begins with a look at reenactors, and then it gets really weird. Most of Horwitz’s subjects are Southerners whose lives are, in various ways, taken over by their interest in the war. The author quotes Shelby Foote for the epigraph: “Southerners are very strange about that war.” Some of the people in this book, such as the Scarlett O’Hara impersonator, may look silly, but make no mistake, they are all in the grip of an obsession, every bit as convinced as Faulkner that “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.”

Malcolm Jones writes about books, music, and photography for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, where he has written about subjects ranging from A. Lincoln to R. Crumb. He is the author of a memoir, Little Boy Blues, and collaborated with the songwriter and composer Van Dyke Parks and the illustrator Barry Moser on Jump!, a retelling of Brer Rabbit stories.


Civil war lit

How the War between the States changed American literature

(Greg Klee/Boston Globe Staff)

By Craig Fehrman, Boston Globe

April 10, 2011

One April night in 1861, almost exactly 150 years ago, Walt Whitman decided to go to the opera. After watching a performance of Verdi, he walked into the New York air — and into a world that had changed completely. Paper boys were “rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual,” Whitman would later write, and he bought one of their extra editions and began reading it under the lamps of the Metropolitan Hotel. The previous day, Southern forces had fired on Fort Sumter. America’s Civil War had begun.

Over the next four years, this war would become the most disruptive and transformative event in American history — something that was true in Whitman’s time and remains true in our own, as we begin marking its sesquicentennial this week. It’s no surprise that, in the intervening years, no other event has attracted more writers (or sold more books). But what is surprising is that the Civil War did not produce any great works of contemporary literature.

This has puzzled critics and readers from the beginning. “Our war,” William Dean Howells wrote in 1867, “has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely.” In “Patriotic Gore,” his classic 1962 study of Civil War writing, Edmund Wilson echoed Howells’s concern. When it comes to the Civil War, there’s no poem or novel or even author who leaves us saying: This is the one who got it right, who captured what the war meant and what it felt like. In fact, the work most people think of is “The Red Badge of Courage” — a novel published 30 years after the war’s end by a writer who wasn’t even born until 1871.

Now one scholar has come up with a new angle on this very old problem. In “From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature,” Randall Fuller reminds us that the 1860s featured as talented a cohort of American writers as any decade could ask for — authors now known and loved by only their last names: Whitman, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Melville. Fuller carefully details how these writers experienced the war in their daily routines, their family lives, and their interlocking friendships.

What this group portrait reveals is that, while the Civil War may not have led to any lasting works of literature, it had a profound impact on the most important writers of its era. The war changed what they believed and how they wrote. After the shots at Fort Sumter, the North came quickly and patriotically together — “flush’d in the face,” in Whitman’s words, “and all its veins fiercely pulsing and pounding.” But Fuller suggests that Whitman and his literary cohort soon became uncomfortable with this kind of certainty, even though they had played a large part in putting that certainty into place. America’s first generation of great writers began experimenting with new literary forms, and began questioning their most dogmatic assumptions about the morality and effects of war.

One thing that emerges from Fuller’s survey, then, is that the Civil War did produce something significant on the literary front. For the first time in American letters, a group of people started writing not just war literature, but antiwar literature. Most of the authors discussed in “From Battlefields Rising” wrote their masterpieces before the Civil War began. But by tracing how the war shaped them and their later work, we can also see how it did something bigger — how it began reshaping what we could expect from our authors during times of war.

“Every generation will discuss the Civil War with its own concerns in mind,” Fuller says from his office at Drury University, the Missouri college where he teaches English — and where the quad still shows signs of a trench dug by the Union army. Edmund Wilson, the great cultural critic writing during the Cold War, studied the Civil War out of interest in how the North “converted overnight into a national near-unanimity.” Fuller, by contrast, spent the last three years researching how writers pushed back against this unanimity. “It was the middle of the Iraq war,” Fuller says, “and I was thinking about what prompted young people to fight for vague and rarefied ideals.”

In the 1850s, the ideals that were driving the nation toward war often issued from literary writers — and from Boston, the nation’s literary capital. Outside Boston’s Court House, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the period’s most infamous abolitionists, led riots over the Fugitive Slave Act. Inside his Worcester home, Higginson was studying authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he found “starry with statements of absolute truth.” One of Fuller’s key claims is that the North’s literary culture — especially the pro-war, antislavery writing appearing in The Atlantic Monthly — exerted a powerful influence on its broader culture. Emerson and his disciples had spent decades calling for moral and cultural transformation. Now the war offered them a perfect set of causes.

Not every Northern writer fell in line. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, like Emerson, had written books popular enough to turn him into a celebrity, admitted in a letter the month after Fort Sumter that “I don’t quite understand what we are fighting for, or what definite result can be expected.” This uncertainty carried over to Hawthorne’s writing. Struggling to complete his novel-in-progress, and in need of a break, he headed to Washington to do some reporting — and to write about what he saw for The Atlantic. Hawthorne got to meet Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan on his trip. But his eventual essay, “Chiefly about War-Matters,” applied fiction’s perspectives and ambivalences to nonfiction. Hawthorne critiqued everything from mechanized warfare to Lincoln’s appearance — his editors cut the latter bit — and even managed to satirize The Atlantic’s self-assured support of the war.

Still, most writers at the time tried to match the nation’s mood. That began to change not long after Hawthorne’s trip, when the Northern and Southern armies met at Shiloh in the first of what would become a horrific series of battles. Fuller documents how, as these conflicts continued, more and more authors became troubled by the gap between the war’s higher purpose and its harsh realities.

Take Herman Melville, who, in the weeks after Shiloh, was also reading some Emerson. Melville wanted to change careers, from failed novelist to successful poet. As he read Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” though, his mind kept returning to current events. After Emersonian aphorisms like “the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye,” Melville would write incredulous notes in the margin. “What does the man mean?” Melville scribbled. Or, in other words: How could someone alive in 1862 see the world’s evils as anything other than real?

Melville also grappled with the Civil War’s frightening new technologies. In “Shiloh,” a poem highlighted by Fuller, Melville creates a pastoral scene of the battle’s aftermath, then undermines it with an eerie parenthetical line: “(What like a bullet can undeceive?).” And Melville also got specific. When he wrote about the USS Monitor, the Union’s celebrated ironclad ship, Melville worried that “Warriors/ Are now but operatives; War’s made/ Less grand than Peace” — a sentiment that seems almost familiar now, but at the time was a sharp rebuke to popular notions about war. (In the same issue of The Atlantic that ran Hawthorne’s essay, there was a glowing profile of the Monitor’s chief engineer.)

Whitman shared Melville’s anxieties. Fuller traces Whitman’s writing from “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” his first war poem that ran in the Boston Evening Transcript, to the more skeptical (and more realistic) poetry he wrote after the war became personal. Whitman’s brother, George, had enlisted as one of the 1,100 original members in his New York regiment. Only 20 percent of that number would survive. In fact, after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman saw his brother’s name in the newspapers’ casualty list and headed south to find the body.

Whitman found George, wounded but alive. Still he decided to stay and nurse the other soldiers. Washington’s war hospitals offered more grisly proof that this was a new kind of war. Whitman noted how many of the veterans refused to brag or even to talk about their experiences. When he decided to write about it — most notably in “The Wound-Dresser” — Whitman subdued not only his patriotism, but also his poetics. The man who used to sing the body electric now described the broken bodies of others: “From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood.”

Eventually, the war challenged the convictions of even Emerson. From the start, Emerson’s youngest child, Edward, had wanted to drop out of Harvard in order to enlist. Edward read up on military strategy, worked on his fencing, and was ultimately offered the chance to be an officer with the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, one of the North’s all-black regiments. Here was a moment that should have made Emerson proud. In 1861, he had started a new journal — he titled it simply “WAR” — and enthused that “the young men of the land…must save it.” When it came time for his own son to serve, though, Emerson waffled. In a letter to his brother, he worried about Edward “going to war, & to such a war!” Fuller details how Emerson and his wife kept finding reasons for Edward not to enlist. He graduated from Harvard in 1866, never having served.

Today, the skepticism of Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman can feel a little underwhelming. After all, how else would one write about war?

To their contemporaries, though, this skepticism felt underwhelming not because it was familiar, but because it was shockingly new. The Civil War writing that flourished at the time was sentimental and patriotic. (One popular subgenre featured Northern and Southern lovers who, by the story’s end, would be united in marriage.) Meanwhile, Hawthorne’s skeptical essay incited lots of angry letters to The Atlantic’s editors. Whitman found his largest audience not through poems criticizing the war, but poems eulogizing Lincoln. Howells, the same critic who had complained about the lameness of Civil War literature, blasted Melville’s collection of poetry for obscuring “that there has really been a great war, with battles fought by men and bewailed by women.”

These attitudes started to change in the 1880s and 1890s — not because everyone started rereading Melville, but because new works like Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” and Ambrose Bierce’s “What I Saw at Shiloh” started re-imagining the Civil War in terms of realism instead of heroism. More than that, these new writers started changing readers’ expectations of war writing. In 1918, while preparing to ship out to Europe, a young John Dos Passos read “The Red Badge of Courage.” The war literature that came out of World War I (Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway), World War II (Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller), and Vietnam (Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien) — all of it is best described as antiwar literature.

But Fuller’s book makes clear that, when we look closely, we can see the writers of the Civil War era testing out these same ideas. Hawthorne’s letters, Melville’s early novels, and Whitman’s journals all remain more devoutly antiwar than anything they actually published during the war, and show us that the pessimism, confusion, and moral ambivalence we associate with post-World War I writing also existed in Civil War writing. In a conflict with unprecedented human costs — and without easy patriotic solutions — American literature took its first quiet shot at representing both the best and the worst qualities of war.

Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books.

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