Sesquicentennial Update: Great Civil War books stand out

Great Civil War books stand out as readers try to satisfy an endless fascination

Source: Cleveland Plain-Dealer, 5-29-11

Here’s a startling fact:

“Books about the Civil War have accumulated at the rate of more than a title a day since fighting erupted at Fort Sumter in April 1861,” writes historian Gary Gallagher in his introduction to a massive bibliography about the conflict.

Somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 titles have rolled off the presses, and a reader could go broke or blind engaging with the new ones timed to mark the sesquicentennial.

“We as a nation are completely compulsive on the Civil War,” observed Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University. “I tell my classes that bad books on the Civil War sell better than good books about just about everything else.”

The regional and internal qualities of the war, its incredible drama, its Shakespearean cast of characters and the fact that the conflict could have gone either way feed our bedrock fascination. So does a continuous tug to resolve the war’s ultimate meanings….

Experts tend to single out a few books repeatedly as the gold standard for general readers.

Here are six titles that rise:

  • “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James M. McPherson.
  • “The Civil War: A Visual History” edited by Jemima Dunne and Paula Regan.
  • “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara.
  • “Personal Memoirs” by Ulysses S. Grant.
  • “This Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust.
  • “A Stillness at Appomattox” by Bruce Catton.
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