© 2019 -  Joshua Wilkey - This Appalachian Life

A Civil War Reading List

August 20, 2017

Many of the regular readers of my blog know that, by training, I'm an historian. I teach at Brevard College, a small liberal arts college in the mountains of western North Carolina. When I was first hired at Brevard, it was to teach out a Civil War course for a faculty member who departed mid-semester. While it is not one of my primary areas of scholarship or interest, there was something about teaching the Civil War that made me interested in the way people remember it. 

 

I grew up in the South, surrounded by plenty of people who waved Confederate battle flags and talked about the South someday rising again. Before I ever took the time to study the war, I was convinced, as many Southerners are, that the South was in the right, and that the war was about states' rights, whatever that meant. It wasn't until I got to college, in my early thirties, that I began to actually read about the war rather than rely upon the fictitious "history" I had, until that point, been taught.

 

During my second semester of graduate school, realizing that comprehensive exams were closing in, I decided that I needed some formal coursework in the Civil War Era. I registered for Dr. Richard Starnes's Civil War & Reconstruction course, and for the first time, the Civil War started to make sense to me. I was finally able to come to terms with the conflicting versions of the war's history that I had held at varying points in my life. I finally started to realize that the Civil War is more than a tragic part of US history that people still fantasize about, glorify, and reenact. I began to understand why we still sometimes talk about the war in present tense. 

 

Between Dr. Starnes's Civil War class and my own teaching of a similar class later in my first semester at Brevard College, I developed an interest in the way that memory (and mythology) of the war continues to permeate the culture of the American South. Recent events have helped me to realize that many Americans continue to struggle with finding meaning in that dark part of our history. I have seen so many posts on social media from people arguing that the war wasn't about slavery that I have begun to wonder how we even have a dialogue about the war and the way we remember it when so many people refuse to acknowledge the real history of the war. 

 

When I say "the real history of the war," I don't mean the version I learned in seventh grade social studies. In that class, which was supposed to be about the non-Western World (whatever that rubbish imperialistic phrase even means), we somehow always got back to the US Civil War. The teacher was a hateful woman who should have retired a decade earlier. She thought it was her mission to teach us "the real history" of the "War of Northern Aggression." She even used the "N" word. Anyway, that's not what I mean by "the real history of the Civil War." What I mean is a narrative based in historical fact that describes the events that took place between approximately 1840 and 1877 in all their complexity and tragedy. 

 

Those of you who know something about history might say "but wait, the Civil War was 1861-1865." Yes, those are the dates of the actual war. However, I believe it is impossible to understand the war without looking at the events that preceded it and the periods (yes, plural) of Reconstruction that followed. Understanding the Civil War and Reconstruction as a single era helps us understand the long-term ramifications of the war in a way studying battles and generals alone cannot. 

 

A while back, I published an Appalachia Reading List. I was stunned at the number of folks who read it and shared it and the dozens of people who emailed me to suggest additions. It turns out that many of those who read my blog are searching for more information about the things I write about, and given the lack of historical fact in contemporary debates about Civil War memory, I think it is appropriate to share a reading list for those seeking a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a complicated era that has been thrust back into the limelight this week. 

 

With the exception of one, the books that follow are scholarly in nature and written by historians. My standard disclaimer from the previous reading list applies here, too. The links in the text take you to Indie Bound, which is my favorite independent bookseller consortium. I make a very small commission for the sale of any books purchased through these links, and I use that to fund hosting and research trips for "This Appalachia Life." 

 

Now, the books:

 

After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace, by A. J. Langguth. This is the only book on the list not written by an historian. Langguth (now deceased), an acclaimed journalist, published this book in 2014, and it is a good "gateway" book for those who might not be scholarly readers but who want to begin exploring the literature surrounding the Civil War. 

 

Apostles of Disunion, by Charles Dew. If you don't read any other book on this list, read this one. I assign this book when I teach the first half of the US survey course (a general history course that covers, in broad strokes, North American history from European contact to 1865). If you are, or have ever been, of the opinion that the Civil War was about anything apart from slavery, you need to read this book. Dew draws heavily from primary sources (as all real historians do) to reveal the way Southern Secession Commissioners travelled across the South to promote succession. Dew's work demonstrates, in short and straightforward order, that secession and the Civil War were about slavery. Period. It is short and concise, and it should be mandatory reading for secondary students in the US. 

 

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, by David Blight. This book is essential for understanding contemporary debates about the removal of Confederate monuments. Through fascinating and impeccable research, Blight demonstrates that after the Civil War, the North and South were able to reconcile through shared remembrance of the war, and this reconciliation came at the expense of African American liberty and equality. If you have ever wondered how fictitious and whitewashed narratives about the war emerged, this book offers some important answers. 

 

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1868, by Eric Foner. As I said earlier, one cannot fully understand the Civil War without understanding Reconstruction. Foner is arguably the foremost Reconstruction scholar, and this is, arguably, the foremost book about Reconstruction. 

 

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, by Eric Foner. If you read this book, be sure to read the version with the new introduction as the original was published over two decades ago. Foner argues that political ideology was a major driving force leading up to the war. He also considers tensions over which version of America - the Northern or the Southern - would take root in the western territories. It broadens the conversation surrounding the causes of the war. 

 

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James McPherson. McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and when you read it, you'll likely understand why. He weaves social, political, and racial tensions and ideologies into a compelling and driven narrative that helps readers understand the complexity of the war. McPherson writes of the war as the "second American Revolution," and argues that the war changed the way Americans conceptualize freedom. 
 

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil Warby Drew Gilpin Faust. If I had to pick a favorite on this list, This Republic of Suffering would be it. Faust (who is, in addition to being a prominent historian, also President of Harvard University) offers an important look at the way the Civil War touched the individual lives of myriad Americans. The thing I like best about this book is that it gives voice and place to those whose stories have often been forgotten in debates about the so-called great men who are credited for causing, fighting, winning, and losing the war. She looks at the war in incredibly pragmatic terms, and the result is a book that is simultaneously touching and humanizing. This book will change how you view the war and make it seem more personal, and, as a result, more heartbreaking. 

 

The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War Southby Drew Gilpin Faust. Particularly given the recent conversations about nationalism, this is an important work that helps explain the way the Confederacy created, in rather short order, a national identity both politically and culturally. This is the oldest book on the list (1990), and yet, it addresses a concept that is essential for understanding the rise of Donald Trump and modern nationalists. (As an aside: If you aren't familiar with the concept of Nationalism as an historic force, it's worth a bit of research. Short version: Nationalists argue that people identify primarily according to their nation, and that a "nation" is defined as a group of people with a common language, culture, and, potentially, religious identity.)

And a bonus: Kevin Levin's website: www.cwmemory.com (Plus his upcoming book tentatively titled Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth). Levin's website has a great list of essays he has written for various publications, many of which deal with the memory of the Civil War. Historical memory (and, for that matter, historical forgetting) are incredibly powerful forces, particularly when related to the Civil War. Levin's essays offer thoughtful arguments and give readers much to consider as they forge their own opinions about the place of Confederate memory in contemporary US culture. 

 

I could, of course, make this list twice as long. No doubt there are other wonderful and important books, and I realize that I focus almost entirely on books that are written by academic historians. That, however, is purposeful. I believe that non-historians can write important and compelling books about history. I do not think that footnotes are always essential for a book to be credible, accurate, and rooted in historical fact. However, given the recent unpleasant conversations about "historical revisionism" by those who don't have a clue what that term means, and given the assertions of those who believe that the removal of marble and bronze statues from public spaces somehow constitutes "erasing history," I believe it is important to present here the work of historians who have dedicated their lives to discovering and writing about historical fact and preserving history in meaningful ways. 

 

One final note: I realize that he is popular among some audiences, but I did not include anything by Shelby Foote. I do not consider his work to be credible. At best, Foote's work offers a view of the Confederacy that is sugarcoated beyond the point of historical accuracy. In an admirable effort to humanize Confederate soldiers, Foote's work often, in my view, is too sympathetic to the Confederacy and causes readers and viewers to lose sight of the fact that the CSA was a political construct led by people endeavoring to tear part the United States of America for the right to buy, sell, own, and trade other humans. 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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