Civil War Books Abound During 150th Anniversary Years
By Pat Taylor
Thousands of books have been written about the Civil War in America. A host of new books were published over the past few years. Some are quite good, exploring new and different aspects not previously covered. Others reveal new research about well-covered subjects, and a few spotlight the lives of lesser-known characters.
Those who read and cherish history recognize that all history is about people as much as events. Timelines are important insomuch as they give context to events, and events are important in the context of larger historical threads.
But, at the granular level, history is about people and their actions, their hero's journey. Those actions, whether singular in nature, or combined with thousands of others, inevitably lead to greater conclusions.
With that in mind, if you are looking for a good read about the "War Between the States," here is a short list of books that reveal the human side of that war. Most are not new, but all are highly recommended, whether one is a student of those defining four years, or just a curious reader.
First on the list is "Killer Angels," by Michael Shaara. This Pulitzer Prize-winner, first published in 1987, represents a different approach to writing history.
Shaara gets up close and personal in the mindsets of some of the major players at the Battle of Gettysburg. Generals Lee, Longstreet and Armistead played key roles for the Army of Virginia, and General Meade and Colonels Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford for the Army of the Potomac.
Shaara follows their thoughts and decisions throughout the three-day engagement, which ended with Pickett's Charge. The book is emotional and highly personal, a historical novel based accurately on fact. Gettysburg was the turning point of the war, and this book explains what happened as well as any, and in a most interesting way.
For much the same reason, Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" is a true classic and still very much worth reading. It is a story of one individual's cowardice and redemption, and may still be the best novel of its kind. The time frame of this story is only a couple of days, but in that time Henry Fleming earns self-respect after running from battle the previous day.
Exhaustive research led to a new book, "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation," by UNCC professor David Goldfield. It's a tome, a little academic in style, but there is a new angle about how a religious revival in the United States, beginning in the 1830s, made it nearly impossible for the question of slavery to be settled by any method other than disunion and civil strife.
The book is broad and unflinching, full of information and insights about people who led the anti-slavery movement in the North and made it difficult to continue the kind of political compromises that were reached in the first 75 years of the nation's history. As a result, the process, which lasted decades beyond the war, reformed the United States into the modern form of the nation we know today.
More people died during the Civil War than any other American conflict, more than a half-million in total. One reason was that old military tactics met modern weaponry.
The slaughter was staggering on both sides at times, and forced people in the United States to cope with and think differently about death. Until that time, most people died close to home and were cared for and buried by family.
During the Civil War, thousands died in a single day and were buried where they fell. This new experience led to the concept of "the honorable death," and it mattered very much to warriors and family that their soldier's death was honorable.
"This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," by Drew Gilpin Faust, explains an unusual, somewhat grim, and rarely considered slice of American life and gives it new life.
"Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, was first published in 1997 and has sold millions of copies, and was made into a movie by the same name.
Inman deserts from a Confederate hospital near the end of the war, and the story follows his long journey home to the N.C. mountains.
The movie was faithful to the book, except for the opening scene, but what the viewer misses on screen is the absolutely beautiful writing Frazier produced. And the screen version, while following the storyline well, does not create the feelings or hardships that come from the written word. This is an epic hero's journey and a romantic saga. It is one of the best-written books of the last 20 years.
It's hard for most people to conceive of what gives men the courage to walk straight into an enemy's position, knowing the chances are high you aren't going to return untouched.
"Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg," by Earl J. Hess, comes as close to explaining the brutality of the Civil War and the chaos of battle as any book can.
This is not a book for the beginner; it's long and detailed. It helps to know something about Gettysburg delving into it. But it paints a graphic picture of the scene and the hour that many historians believe was the turning point of the Civil War. General George Pickett, who was not wounded, never recovered from the loss of half his troops. Neither did General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
This is but a small sampling of books on the subject, but they are all personal, engaging and enlightening, each in a different style and manner. Each sheds light and understanding on America's darkest hour. Slip between the pages and enjoy.
Contact Pat Taylor at email@example.com.
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