Can you recommend some good books about the Civil War to me?
June 26, 2012 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing some research on the nineteenth century in the U.S. and I've realized I need to understand the Civil War better. Can you help me?

I basically need a couple of books: one that will explain why the Civil War happened and what the effects of it were on a national scale, and a couple that will aquaint me with the most recent scholarship in the area. I'm more interested in scholarly works than in pop histories. I'm totally uninterested in military histories that catalog the minute details of every battle. And I read way faster than I can watch any sort of screen, so I'm only interested in books for the moment.

In terms of specific subject matter, I'm most interested in something I've seen alluded to in couple of books already: the idea that before the Civil War, culture in the U.S. was much more regionally-focused and the Federal Government was weaker, but during the Civil War and afterwards, the North strengthened the Federal Government and began to create a more homogenous national culture (they created new Federal holidays and monuments, nationalized the banks, etc). My sense is that the purpose of this was first to strengthen northern power and later to dissuade another region from rebelling. I'm half-Yankee/half-Westerner myself, and I'm interested in the above argument for intellectual reasons, not because I'm harbouring resentment against the North or anything. Can you point me to some books that might be helpful?
posted by colfax to Education (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom; Drew Gilpin Faust's Republic of Suffering; William Gienapp's Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America; The Destructive War, by Charles Royster.

Gienapp's book specifically addresses the issues you raise in your second paragraph.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:31 AM on June 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Second the McPherson, which really is the best one-volume account I know. For the origins, David Blight's lecture series, available via Open Yale as podcasts, is fantastic; he's very good on Reconstruction and the overall aftermath, too, which too often gets short shrift. The syllabus for that course is also a great starting point for further reading about the war and the period.
posted by Levi Stahl at 9:38 AM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Chandra Manning's What This Cruel War Was Over uses letters from both Northern and Southern soldiers to examine how those actually fighting the war saw it. It was one of my favorites from my coursework on the Civil War.

John Patrick Daly's When Slavery was Called Freedom examines the role religion and the Southern evangelical tradition played in the war and it's cause.

And as much as I hate his writing, Michael Kammen is incredibly well-respected when it comes to the concepts of making an American culture. He addresses the latter part of your question, how the war impacted the development of a federal or national culture, quite well in Mystic Chords of Memory. I think his ideas are really good, but be prepared for some serious pompous academic speak. He uses "thusly" and other ten-dollar words relentlessly and without mercy.
posted by teleri025 at 9:59 AM on June 26, 2012

Battle Cry is great, just finished it yesterday. It's slightly old (80s I believe) but hey, it's not like there's been any new Civil War battles fought.
posted by Patbon at 10:02 AM on June 26, 2012

Maybe try Paul Calore's The Causes of the Civil War.

And Kenneth Stampp's edited collection on the causes of the war, while old, is probably still worth reading.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:10 AM on June 26, 2012

On the Confederate side, Look Away by William C. Davis is more of a political history than the classic military history of the CSA and I found it pretty interesting. It indulges a bit in the Lost Cause myth, but it's hard to find CSA things that don't.

This weekend, I picked up a book called The Longest Night that IS a military history of the ACW. Reviews I've read say it's not as well written as Foote or Catton, but he had access to some new sources in the 90s, so there is some new material. Can't vouch for it myself yet.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:19 AM on June 26, 2012

Seconding Chandra Manning's What This Cruel War Was Over and Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering. Faust also has This Republic of Suffering about elite southern women, and it's a great book though perhaps not directly what you're looking for. I also liked Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning, which goes into great detail about the politics of secession and also covers the attempts to create a national Southern identity; McCurry argues that the exclusion of women and slaves from formal political power in the South was a decisive factor in the Confederacy's destruction.
posted by lilac girl at 10:23 AM on June 26, 2012

Shelby Foote's three volume "The Civil War: A Narrative," is pretty exhaustive. It was made an 11-hour PBS series, apparently, though I haven't seen it, and he also was included in Ken Burns "The Civil War."

And though it's fiction, "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell shouldn't be missed.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:55 AM on June 26, 2012

Best answer: Gabor S. Boritt's Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream. More recent scholarly reappraisal of same.
posted by CincyBlues at 11:22 AM on June 26, 2012

Best answer: Not precisely on the Civil War itself, but in regards to the rest of your research, I just finished Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, and it speaks a lot about the things you're focused on in the antebellum U.S., and will challenge some, or quite a number, of your assumptions. It's also, coincidentally, probably one of the greatest American history books I've ever read.
posted by General Malaise at 11:40 AM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like this talk by William W. Freehling about his book Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. Virginia was the largest and most important state to secede, and Freehling argues that the debate in Virginia mirrored the debate in other southern states. The convention was held to debate secession and intensified when Lincoln issued a proclamation to send troops, including troops from Virginia, to subdue rebellion in South Carolina. The convention lasted for 2 months, and there are 4,000 pages of documentation on the debate and speeches that occurred. The debate in Virgina as presented by Freehling shows, IMO, that the primary cause of the civil war was the fear of secessionists that the northern republican party and abolitionism would eventually spread south and lead to the end of slavery. Initially 2/3 of the delegates in Virgina were unionists who wanted no part of secession, and their strongest argument was that there was little chance that Lincoln could or would abolish slavery anytime in the near future if the union held together; that the surest way to end slavery would be to secede and lose a civil war. In fact Lincoln, in his inauguration speech, stated he had no objection to an original 13th amendment that would make it illegal for congress to pass an amendment abolishing slavery, probably in an effort to influence remaining southern states not to rebel. Freehling even suggests that if the civil war did not occur, slavery may not have been abolished until the time of MLK. This may be an exaggeration--but perhaps only a small one.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:46 AM on June 26, 2012

Best answer: While I cannot speak to the aspects of the thesis pertaining to political systems, I would argue that regional cultural identities remained of paramount importance in postbellum America. Regionalism, as a literary movement, is actually associated with the late nineteenth century. Stephanie Foote's Regional Fictions provides a nice introduction to the literary productions of this era.

If you are primarily interested in the nineteenth century, Jennifer Greeson's Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature is useful for thinking about the vital role of the south in the northern imagination, and Fitzhugh Brundage's The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory provides a productive introduction to post-bellum forms of southern identity.

If you are also interested in more contemporary regional identities, Scott Romine's work, including Narrative Forms of Southern Community and The Real South, explores how southern identity is created and commodified in the twentieth century.
posted by rapidadverbssuck at 12:15 PM on June 26, 2012

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has written extensively on the Civil War and his blog posts and the readers' comments are generally very interesting.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:28 PM on June 26, 2012

Best answer: The best short synopsis of the American Civil War is in the second or third volume of Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking People. In less than 100 pages he gets it all: the war and the politics, the major actors. It is a good place to start to get an overall grip on the period of American history.
posted by three blind mice at 10:32 PM on June 26, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, you lovely people! Thank you all very much for the suggestions. This is exactly what I was hoping for.
posted by colfax at 12:29 AM on June 27, 2012

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