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Civil Warriors Polls: The Most Influential Books in the Past 20 Years

Rather than join the discussion over recent polls, I think it better to poll our readership on questions of interest to us (read me). To do this, I’ve created an e-mail address for the group ( Here’s the first question:

It’s been twenty years since the publication of James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Tell us what you believe are the five books that have done the most to transform our understanding of the field of Civil War scholarship since that that book appeared.

Comments (17) to “Civil Warriors Polls: The Most Influential Books in the Past 20 Years”

  1. What a way to turn a big disappointment into something informative. Thanks Brooks. I will respond on my blog and post it on the group site.

  2. Brooks, do you want us to list those books that WERE influential–or those that SHOULD have been influentia?

  3. Let’s go with ARE. Then we can have another poll. :)

  4. OK, I’ll bite:

    (1) Foner’s Reconstruction

    (2) Piston’s study of Longstreet

    (3) Rafuse’s McClellan’s War. What is interesting about my inclusion of this book is that I vehemently disagree with most of the author’s thesis. I think he has done an admirable job of setting it forth, though. I just think he is badly wrong about things.

    (4) Will Greene’s Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion

    (5) Robertson’s biography of Jackson

    Honorable mention: Sears’s bio of McClellan (sorry, Ethan).

  5. Ethan, don’t mind Jim, he really can’t help it. And as a mechanic…er, I mean math guy, he has an affinity for Kenneth Williams and shares his pathalogical hatred of Mac.

    I think for regimental histories, I’m going to suggest Wilkinson’s “Mother May You Never See…”. It has reset the bar.

    I nominated Mark’s “Hard Hand of War” earlier as a groundbreaker.

    Carol Reardon’s “Pickett’s Charge” spawned a ton of imitators, and brought memory to the forefront.

    I’ll also toss in Rowena Reed’s “Combined Operations” in the shoulda been influential category, in part because Beatie’s volume three was touted as being the first study to look at the stuff she had already looked at, but more importantly to piss off Jim.

    And David Blight’s “Race and Reunion”, of course.

    Hey, that’s five!

  6. Harry, Mark’s book deserves mention, I just didn’t want to be seen as brown-nosing *too* much or I would have mentioned it myself, probably in place of Will Greene’s Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion. Greene’s book is very good, and certainly covers a topic not seen elsewhere, but Mark wins on the grounds of “needs doing.”

  7. 1. Chandra Manning, _What This Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War_
    2. Elizabeth Brown Pryor, _Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters_
    3. Gordon Rhea, The Overland Campaign Series
    4. David W. Blight, _Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory_
    5. Bruce Levine, _Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War_


  8. Harry, I am quite able to “help it.” K. Williams does go a little far with his rhetoric in trashing Mac, although I do confess to some sympathy for a fellow mathematician dabbling in history (and doing it pretty well, in his case). As for my alleged pathological hatred of Mac, he earned every bit of it with the virtually incompetant conduct of his command. The thing is, McClellan *should* have been one of the most successful officers of the war. We are left wondering, then, why he wasn’t more successful, and I am forced to the conclusion that he mostly shot himself in the foot (and other places). I am very much in agreement with the line of thought put out by T. Harry Williams in his set of essays, “McClellan, Sherman, and Grant.”

    This blog is not the place for an extended discussion, Harry. I’m willing to meet you in the usual forums.

  9. I’d like to nominate two books: one by Mark Neely: The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties and the other by Allen Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. Neely’s book is especially timely in the current environment, as is a book mentioned above, Foner’s RECONSTRUCTION.

  10. Brooks,

    Great idea! I saw Kevin’s blog entry responding to your question. I’m going to do the same when I get a chance in the next few days. It would be kind of fun if a lot of the Civil War bloggers out there did the same.

  11. When was McWhiney’s _Attack and Die_ published? I thought that book took a fresh look at Civil War tactics.

  12. Attack and Die came out before BCoF … years before.

    Rowena Reed’s book came out in 1978.

  13. Actually, Ralph (if I may), I would say the *fresh* look at Civil War tactics came not from McWhiney and Jamieson, but in Paddy Griffith’s _Battle Tactics of the Civil War_.

    Brooks: If you want to scratch _Embattled Courage_ from the list I sent you because it came out the same year as _Battle Cry_, then put Griffith in its place.

  14. I’ve finally found some time to think this over, look over my library of books, and come to my conclusions. The following five books (two of which are parts of series) reflect my tendency to read more books on battles and tactics, and I selected my five based only on books I’ve read. In no particular order, they are:

    – Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 by Gordon Rhea (I’m really spotlighting the whole series)

    – Army of the Potomc, Vol. 3: McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel Beatie (again the whole series)

    – Mother May You Never See The Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Last Year of the Civil War by Warren Wilkinson

    – Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee & Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 by Joe Harsh

    – The Hard Hand of War by Mark Grimsley

    No I’m not trying to suck up on the last one (c’mon Jim, just nominate Mark already!) :-)

    Several things struck me immediately from this conversation:

    1) I REALLY need to get around to reading David Blight’s book. I’m going to fast track that one to the front of my queue.

    2) Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion is an excellent, excellent study of the last week of the Petersburg Campaign.

    3) I hope a lot of other people respond as well. Taking the suggestion of those who do and reading some of the ones I haven’t read can only add to my understanding of the war.

  15. “War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869″ by Noel C. Fisher (UNC Press, 1997).

    “Race and Reunion : The Civil War in American Memory” by David Blight (Belknap Press, 2001).

    “Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War” by Charles Dew (UVa Press, 2001).

    “Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West” by William Shea and Earl Hess (UNC Press, 1992).

    “Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History” by Alan Nolan (UNC Press, 1991). (Unfortunately, bad books can be influential, too)

  16. I’ll have to think more to come up with a list of my top 5, but I would like to respectfully submit these two among my favorites:

    *Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs* by Dr. Alfred J. Bollet – provided a much-needed update to “Doctors in Blue” and “Doctors in Gray”, is much, much better than another recent medical title (Bleeding Blue and Gray).


    Mark Wilson’s recent **The Business of Civil war: Mobilization and the State 1861-1865** which has been uniformly praised for its scholarship.

    All My Best,

    Jim Schmidt

  17. Off the top of my head:

    David Blight: Race and Reunion
    Mark Neely: The Fate of Liberty
    Eric Foner: Reconstruction
    Henry Jaffa: A New Birth of Freedom
    Garry Wills: Lincoln at Gettysburg