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 titles 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 Catton. 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 Catton, 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 of 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 chock-full 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.
The writing also provides us with a wonderful glimpse of Grant the soldier. He retells dangerous episodes as if he were merely an observer who could not be injured. His ability to recall such extraordinary detail demonstrates just how calm Grant was in a crisis. Personal Memoirs also offers insights into the workings of the great general’s mind. Amid the chaos and overload of war, Grant had the rare ability to sort through everything and focus on the one, two, or three truly important factors. He grasped problems in all their simplicity and did not worry much about the rest.
From a historical standpoint, Personal Memoirs is almost unfalteringly accurate. Grant’s memory fails him only when he writes about capturing Vicksburg. He claims that all along he planned to wait until the spring, when the roads had dried. He would then march along the west side of the Mississippi River, shuttle across, and campaign from the south. The contemporary record suggests that, after several unsuccessful attempts to take Vicksburg in the winter, he was completely stumped and had planned a frontal assault, when the alternative idea finally came to him.
The last section of volume 2, encompassing the campaigns of 1864 and 1865, is a rehash of the report Grant submitted to the War Department at the end of the war. Having fallen into bankruptcy, the former president was racing against the grim reaper to complete the memoirs and provide a nest egg for his wife, Julia. He died a few days after their completion.
I stumbled upon Soldiering as I researched my dissertation on William T. Sherman’s army during the March to the Sea and through the campaign in the Carolinas. Edited by naval historian K. Jack Bauer, it is the Civil War journal of Sergeant Rice C. Bull of the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry. Bull (1842–1930) kept a detailed diary during the war. Nearly 50 years after he returned to his home near Hartford, New York, he completed the “journal” based on the diary and his wartime letters. Copies passed through the hands of family members, until his daughter shared one with Bauer.
Soldiering is the most earnest and charming postwar writing I have ever read. An intelligent yet humble farm lad, Bull enlisted in 1862. He did so from a “sense of duty,” asserting that he and his comrades “felt that if our country was to endure as a way of life as planned by our fathers, it rested with us children to finish the work they had begun.” Wounded twice at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Bull was captured and soon paroled. He returned to the Army five months later and marched through Georgia and the Carolinas. With candor and charm, Bull brings to life his comrades and their experiences, never straying to speculate about matters beyond what he could see personally. Without boasting, he took great pride in his military service, and the reader finishes Soldiering with the knowledge that Rice Bull and a couple of million more like him restored the Union and destroyed slavery.
When the World Ended (1957)
Emma LeConte, a 17-year-old resident of Columbia, South Carolina, whose geologist father worked for the Confederate government, personally witnessed the occupation and destruction of her city and recorded it in her diary. As Sherman’s army marched through Georgia and into South Carolina, Emma’s father was cut off from the family. For days she lived with fearful uncertainty over his fate, until he was reunited with the family 10 days before the Northern forces arrived.
The strain on residents as Union troops approached was palpable. Emma’s mother was terrified, and could barely maintain her composure. “What a degradation!” Emma exclaimed when she described the raising of the Union flag over the capitol. That night, cotton embers, Union firebugs, and high winds transformed Columbia into an inferno. “Imagine night turned into noonday,” she wrote in her extraordinary depiction of that horrific experience. Emma refused to be cowed, and to the end cheered for Lee and his army. She was crushed by the Confederate defeat.
Brilliant and tough-minded, Emma LeConte survived the war, married, and, when her husband died, raised two children on her own. The diary, copied by Emma herself, was one of the first acquisitions of the Southern Historical Collection after its establishment in 1930 at the University of North Carolina, where historian Earl Schenck Miers later came upon it and edited it for publication. It’s a remarkable account by a young woman robbed of the last of her youth by the Civil War.