Saturday, December 06, 2014

My 2014 Civil War Reading: A Nine-Book Tour

Entering 2014, I planned to do more Civil War history reading than I've managed in the previous couple of years.  As the year draws to a close, I am a little disappointed in the number of Civil War books I've read, but I'm very pleased with the quality of those books - and by how much I enjoyed them and learned from them.

When it comes to reading books, I'm not a nonfiction snob at all - really, I'm almost the opposite. So, because nonfiction titles generally make up only about one-third of my average year's reading, I was surprised to find just the opposite for my CW reads: six nonfiction titles and three novels:  

  • Travels to Hallowed Ground - Emory Thomas
  • How to Lose the Civil War - Bill Fawcett
  • Fierce Patriot - Robert L. O'Connell
  • Clouds of Glory - Michael Korda
  • Grant and Sherman - Charles B. Flood
  • The Marble Man - Thomas L. Connelly
  • The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee - Thomas J. Fleming
  • I Shall Be Near You - Erin Lindsay McCabe 
  • Shiloh: A Novel - Shelby Foote

Travels to Hallowed Ground, The Marble Man, and Shiloh: A Novel were re-reads for me, three books I've been partial too for a long time.  

The Marble Man (first published by LSU Press in 1977) does a good job of deconstructing much of the myth that surrounds General Robert E. Lee.  Thomas Connelly does this by showing exactly how, and when, the myth was constructed, in the first place, and he does his best to separate fact from fiction.  The book, of course, was not very popular in the South, but I actually saw a copy at the wonderful bookstore in the basement of Lee Chapel in Lexington, Va.  Kudos to the shop manager there for including it on her Lee shelves.

In Travels to Hallowed Ground (published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1987), historian Emory Thomas recounts his visits to various Civil War battlegrounds and the lasting impact that those visits had on him. Sites visited include: Harpers Ferry, Petersburg, Shiloh, Fort Pulaski, and the Bennett Place.

Shelby Foote's Shiloh: A Novel (published by The Dial Press in 1952), is a character-driven, fictional look at one of the War's pivotal battles.  The approach that Foote took in this novel became pretty much the blueprint for the immense success that Michael Shaara would later have with his prize winning novel The Killer Angels - and of course it has become the "go-to" approach for Michael's son Jeff and numerous other authors since then.

My two favorites of the nine books, though, were both published this year: Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (Random House) and Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (Harper).  These two biographies, one of a Union General and one of a Confederate general, are remarkable in the amount of information (and speculation) that they pack into single volumes.  Although Michael Korda's Lee biography is 785 pages long and Robert L. O'Connell's Sherman book is just over half that length, the books are equally excellent.

Novels The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee and I Shall Be Near You, are very different pieces of historical fiction.  The first, a nice blending of speculative history with historical facts, fits in a popular genre known as Alternate History.  The second is a novel about a newlywed woman who follows her husband to war and, when she catches up to him, disguises herself as a man and fights alongside him and their childhood friends.  Several women are have known to fight as common soldiers on both sides, so this is not as farfetched as it first sounds.

Grant and Sherman: The Partnership That Won the Civil War is an excellent dual-biography of two of the North's greatest, and certainly most successful, Civil War generals.  The book explores the unique collaboration that was made possible by the distinct personalities of these two men.  Their personalities meshed into the perfect fit, and the decision to have them work together as a unit, was the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

How to Lose the Civil War was the only disappointment I had in my Civil War reading this year.  It makes good points, and builds good cases for those points, but very little of the information is new or surprising- and, for the most part, it is very dryly written.  

I'm already looking forward to next year's Civil War reading, and I'm in the process of choosing a few books with which to begin the year. Most of them have been on my shelves for a while already - and I added two or three last month - so I think I'm good to go.

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