The Top 12 Civil War Books Ever Written, Glenn W. Lafantasie, Salon.com, December 26, 2010.
Putting together such a list is, of course, a nearly impossible task, given the stacks and stacks of excellent books on the Civil War that have been published since 1865. Historians like to say that 60,000 books, give or take a few thousand, have been written about the war, but I'd wager that estimate is way too low. One needs only ponder the steady stream of books on nearly every aspect of the war that regularly roll off the presses to realize that Americans never seem to get enough of their favorite war.
Trying to name the top dozen Civil War books of all time is, admittedly, a brazen act on my part. Nevertheless, the books on this list are, indeed, my all-time favorites -- cherished works that have informed and inspired me, sometimes leaving me awestruck. In some cases, I've read these books more than once. Each time, I extract something new from them; never has my opinion of them lessened from reading them again. They are like old friends: They never wear you out and they don't ask much from you, other than that you think of them from time to time and recall what they mean to you.
All of these books occupy a special place in my own collection of Civil War works -- not only because I'm a Civil War historian, but also because these happen to be extraordinary books, every one of which has been written by exceptionally gifted authors. These are the sort of books you wish you hadn't read before, if only because you'd like to recapture the pure delight of reading them fresh for the first time. I hope you'll find my descriptions of them enticing enough to seek them out for yourself. No doubt you might disagree with my assessment of them. One of my wisest professors once said that books don't belong to their authors -- they belong to their readers. Every reader will have a different response to these books, but my hope is that you might enjoy them -- or any one of them -- as much as I do.
First, some arbitrary rules that have guided my selection of titles. I've only included books published after World War II, which means I'm leaving out a long shelf of good books issued before the second half of the 20th century, some of which still stand the test of time. Out of necessity, I've narrowly defined the universe from which I have picked my top dozen. For example, I've not included any biographies on this list -- an exclusion that some may find indefensible. No series or multivolume works are included here either, which means that Allan Nevins' majestic "The Ordeal of the Union" (eight volumes), Bruce Catton's "Centennial History of the Civil War" (three volumes), and Shelby Foote's very popular "The Civil War" (three volumes) are not to be found below, despite the fact that they all qualify as masterpieces. What's more, I've stuck to only nonfiction titles, so fans of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" or Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" (both winners of the Pulitzer Prize) will be disappointed to see these novels missing from my list.
In any event, here are a dozen books that, for me, tell the story of the Civil War with literary elegance, intellectual gusto and enormous flair. Most of these books are in print (and in paper editions) and may be purchased at your local bookstore, from out-of-print book dealers, or from any of numerous book retailers.
12. "The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War":
11. "Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America":
10. "Lincoln's Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation":
9. "Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War":
8. "Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave":
7. "Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam":
6. "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War":
5. "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory":
4. "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War":
3. "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era":
2. "The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans":
1. "A Stillness at Appomattox":
To read the entire essay and LaFantasie's rationale for each book go to Salon.com December 26, 2010.
CWL: Great list! Though Lafantasie creates a list of non-series books, he does put one of a trilogy on the list, A Stillness at Appomattox, part three of Catton's Army of the Potomac. But CWL agrees with them all, even Horwitz's Confederates In The Attic. A personal favorite, Confederates In The Attic appears to be scorned by neo-Confederates. In a Gettysburg bookstore CWL stood behind a Confederate reenactor, a colonel, who lectured a Confederate reenactor, a private, on what to read. The private picked up Confederates In The Attic and was rebuked by the colonel. "That book gets it wrong," the colonel said. The private put it back on the shelf. It seems that Horwitz's book may be a 'heritage violation' among the 2200 or so of the so-called Sons of Confederate Veterans.