Monday, August 25, 2014

Influential Books

Yesterday, Eric Wittenberg posted his list of ten influential books on his Rantings of a Civil War Historian blog. Inspired by his list, I decided to list history books that have influenced me throughout my life. Unlike his list, mine sticks only to history books; they are listed in the order that they were published.

Fox, William F. Regimental Losses In The American Civil, 1861-1865. (1898)
Those of you who are regular followers know that this is one of my all time favorite books. From the moment I received a Morningside reprint edition as a Christmas gift in 1978 I was hooked. There is an amazing amount of information about regiments (particularly Union ones) in the book, and Fox’s accounts of the “300 Fighting Regiments” have always fascinated me. This book helped foster an early interest in unit histories.

Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist. (1915)
Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian in the Civil War, 1862-1865. (1919)
Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian and the End of the Confederacy, 1863-1866 (1925)

Abel’s trilogy was groundbreaking when it was published and still stands as the standard source on the topic. The books focus on the Five Civilized Tribes (Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole) and their plight in the Indian Territory. She dug deep in primary sources—in fact, her footnotes often take up more of a page than the actual text. Her books would be more useful now if some hardy scholar would modernize her citations. Since the early twentieth century, many of the collections that she used have been renamed and some have been microfilmed. Tracking down her resources can be quite challenging and sometimes requires great expertise in the subject area.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb. (1943)
Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Life of Billy Yank. (1952)

Look through Wiley’s endnotes sometime, think about the time period when he did his research, and be amazed. Dr. Wiley combed archives nationwide in a time when there was no internet, no photocopier, no personal computer…I salute you Dr. Wiley, for you were a truly indefatigable researcher. Wiley chronicled both the good and the bad traits of Union and Confederate soldiers in an evenhanded, understanding, and sometimes humorous manner.

Catton, Bruce. Mr. Lincoln’s Army. (1951)
Catton, Bruce. Glory Road. (1952)
Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox. (1953)

I almost wore the covers off of my used copies of Catton’s “Army of the Potomac” trilogy when I was in high school. Catton’s writing skill is rightfully praised but have you ever studied his endnotes? For me, they opened the door to the many regimental histories that he used. My favorite of the trilogy is Mr. Lincoln's Army and its depiction of eager but raw soldiers as they learn about the true nature of war.

Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine. (1957)
When I was in junior school, I went to a “garage sale” at a local university and found a pocketbook copy of Pullen’s book for a dime. It was missing its cover, but my mom made a cardboard cover for it that I proudly decorated with colored pens. Feeling extra artistic, I also colored in many of the black and white drawings inside the book. Pullen analyzed the characteristics of a volunteer regiment that he considered to be made up of ordinary men, and, yet, they achieved extraordinary things at Gettysburg.

Catton, Bruce. American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. (1960) Like many others, I pored over the hundreds of illustrations in this book, and those maps…very cool!

Frassanito, William A. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. (1978)
Frassanito’s photographic books are obviously labors of love and models of detective work. This one is my favorite because of his vignettes of ordinary soldiers who fought at Antietam. These humanize the book and show clearly the tragedy of war.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle (1983).
A graduate school professor urged us to read this book, and I’m glad that I took his advice. Keegan called for a “bottom up” focus on the common soldier rather than the traditional “top down” military history approach. His case studies of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme written in the “bottom up” style were illuminating.

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (1992)
Shea and Hess’ close study of the battlefield and their use of resources all across the country resulted in a nearly perfect campaign study. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat!

Hood, Stephen M. John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. (2013)
As an historian, I regard this as a cautionary tale as Stephen Hood showed how many historians have not only drawn conclusions based on faulty interpretations, but some have been overly influenced by the works of other historians. This book has reminded me to step ever more carefully when interpreting primary sources and to not be so blindly trusting of secondary sources.


  1. Hello Jane

    I agree with you regarding Pea Ridge - Shea & Hess. It is one of the top 2 or 3 campaign studies. It s easily the best of any TM campaign.


  2. Hi Don, The Pea Ridge book is certainly primo, but I wonder how many people have actually read the book. My suspicion is that those Eastern campaign books attract most of the readers!