The day before his soldiers either set fire to Columbia, S.C., or hindered the residents from putting out fires that others had set, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was approached by an anxious plantation owner who had brought his personal library to the state capital for safekeeping. ”Please, General Sherman, won’t you spare my library?” ”Books,” snapped the general, ”if there had only been more books in this part of the country we wouldn’t have had all this foolishness here.” In truth there were books in the South, most of them concentrated in the hands of the planters. Perhaps, in Sherman’s view, there were enough books but just not the right ones.
It’s that way with Civil War books. Many thousands of titles have appeared in print and still the books keep coming. In some way we are left unsatisfied by any one interpretation. Yes, the war is so large a topic that some new aspect of the story will always deserve a book. But there is a mystery to the war that has not been solved. How could this nation dissolve into two? Why did the victorious North abandon its black allies and then abandon the South to decades of un-American poverty? Every new book tries to reach that mystery, yet the mystery stays unfathomed.
Consider the 30 titles listed below. Some are essential to any Civil War collection. Others have merely been influential. Still others are obscure or neglected and await their moment of discovery and appreciation.
Anti-Slavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States Dwight Lowell Dumond (Greenwood, $35)
This elegant little book boldly asserts slavery as the leading cause of the war and argues that doing away with it was the unfinished task of the founding fathers.
The Causes of the Civil War Kenneth M. Stampp, editor (Simon & Schuster, $6.95)
Stampp rounds up the usual suspects — slavery, economic nationalism, majority rule and minority rights, the conflict of cultures — and happily notes that through the search for the elusive first cause, historians have steadily added to our knowledge of the greatest crisis in our national life.
Generals and Battles
Lincoln and His Generals T. Harry Williams (McGraw Hill, $6.95)
A stunning contribution to the history of the American system of war command, told through a sympathetic account of Lincoln’s predicament as commander-in-chief in search of a general.
Lee’s Lieutenants (3 vols.) Douglas S. Freeman (Macmillan, vols. 1-2, $17.95; vol. 3, $18.95)
A highly original study of the command system of the Confederacy, using the methods of biography to illuminate the growth of such outstanding officers as Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Jubal A. Early, and Wade Hampton.
The Campaign of Chancellorsville John Bigelow Jr. (Morningside Press, $200)
A great military book by a writer without peer in describing battle.
Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman William T. Sherman (Library of America, $35)
A scathing critique of military leadership on both sides. The publication of these remorseless memoirs in 1875 did as much to win Sherman the enmity of Southern whites as the destruction his army had wreaked in the field.
The March to the Sea and Beyond Joseph T. Glatthaar (New York University Press, $35)
A finely detailed study of General Sherman’s army.
Personal Memoirs and Selected Letters Ulysses S. Grant (Library of America, $35)
Grant’s final victory. Ruined by a financial swindle, dying of throat cancer, and worrying about support for his family after his death, Grant took his friend Mark Twain’s advice and wrote his memoirs. The result was a best-seller that restored the family fortune and won Grant literary admirers for decades.
The Common Soldier
The Life of Johnny Reb Bell I. Wiley (Louisiana State University Press, $9.95)
A path-breaking account of the common soldier’s life as it really was. Grounded in Confederate war diaries, letters, and memoirs, this masterful study quietly confers dignity on the everyday man.
The Life of Billy Yank Bell I. Wiley (Louisiana State University Press, $9.95)
Not merely a companion piece to Johnny Reb, but a fresh, insightful, and sometimes surprising look at life in Union camps and trenches.
Tennessee Civil War Veterans Questionnaires (5 vols.) John T. Moore and Colleen M. Elliott, editors (Southern Historical Press, $35 per volume, $150 for the set)
Treasured memories of army life related in an earthy, direct idiom. The result of a unique, well-conceived project involving questionnaires sent to all of Tennessee’s surviving Civil War veterans between 1910 and 1919
The Negro’s Civil War James M. McPherson (University of Illinois Press, $9.95)
An unsentimental study of American blacks in the era of the Civil War. The black man’s elevation to soldier, neighbor, and free worker drew violent responses from whites who feared the competition.
The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass Vol. 3, The Civil War (International Publishers, 5 vol. set, $35)
Wartime writings of a great American thinker, abolitionist, and seer.
Army Life in a Black Regiment Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Norton, $7.95)
A literary triumph by the human-rights activist and former Unitarian minister chosen to command the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment comprised of freed slaves from the Sea Islands.
Destruction and Reconstruction Richard Taylor (Ayer Co., $31.95)
The literary standard by which all Confederate memoirs are judged, by a brilliant and ambitious young officer who enlisted before Bull Run, in July 1861, and surrendered a month after Lee, in May 1865.
Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander Gary W. Gallagher, editor (University of North Carolina Press, $34.95)
An evocative, hard-hitting critique of Lee’s army by an ex-artillery officer who had real writing talent.
When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte Earl S. Miers, editor (University of Nebraska Press, $5.95)
A passionate, devoutly kept record of the last months of the war by a 17-year-old witness to Sherman’s march through South Carolina.
Mary Chesnut’s Civil War C. Vann Woodward, editor (Yale University Press, $16.95)
A masterpiece of reporting and reflection that brings to life the educated, vain, yet public-spirited portion of the Southern ruling class in its hour of ruin. Mary Chesnut’s eye and ear for character were matched in her century only by Henry James; the vigor of her prose was unequaled.
Winners and Losers
Why the South Lost the Civil War Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, William N. Still Jr. (University of Georgia Press, $34.95)
Rejects any single cause for defeat, and turns away from economic explanations. Four gifted historians look instead at the relationship between morale and battlefield success.
Why the North Won the Civil War David Donald, editor (Macmillan, $4.95)
Five elegant explanations which give more weight to Southern deficiencies than to Northern strengths in determining the outcome of the war. Historian David Potter suggests that had Abraham Lincoln led the South, and Jefferson Davis the North, the Confederacy would have won.
The Confederate States of America E. Merton Coulter (Louisiana State University Press, $35)
A first-rate account of the formation and disintegration of the Confederacy, enriched by vivid writing and flawed by its slighting of the slaves and their role in the region.
Social and Industrial Conditions In the North During the Civil War Emerson D. Fite (Corner House, $20)
A magnificent portrait of the booming Northern home front. As the South consumed itself in the effort to supply its armies, the North expanded its output in every major economic category.
Battle Cry of Freedom James M. McPherson (Ballantine, $14.95)
A Pulitzer-winning examination of the meaning of freedom and slavery to each warring side. With its pleasing balance of narrative and detail, this single-volume history shoull be unsurpassable for a generation.
The Civil War: A Narrative (3 vols.) Shelby Foote (Random House, $16.95 per vol.; $50 per set)
A complete history, delivered with the narrative power of an adventure novel, and told consistently from the point of view of the combatants. Foote, whose commentary enlivened PBS’ recent series, is a master at evoking personalities.
The Civil War: An Illustrated History Geoffrey C. Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns (Knopf, $50)
The well-crafted companion to the 11-hour PBS series on the Civil War. Ward juxtaposes fresh analyses of presidential politics and emancipation with some of the finest reproductions of wartime photographs ever to appear in print. The result is an informative book, lovely to look at and hold.
Rehearsal for Reconstruction Willie Lee Rose (Oxford, $13.95)
An inspired saga of Reconstruction: the story of the betrayal of the freedmen of the South Carolina Sea Islands by their former Union allies. Rose’s penetrating study leaves one wistful for what might have been.
The Civil War Dictionary Mark M. Boatner III (McKay, $25)
An essential single-volume reference work. Thoroughly researched, brilliantly organized, and impeccably written.
The Red Badge of Courage Stephen Crane (Bantam, $1.75)
Once criticized for its lack of patriotism and for the self-absorption of its hero, Crane’s novel now seems a book that does not grow old. He combines a dazzling palette of words with a keen understanding of inner life as he follows a young soldier from adolescence to manhood.
The Fathers Allen Tate (Ohio University Press, $8.95)
A neglected great novel about the collapse of old Virginia’s civilization under the stress of war. Tate never followed up this novel with another — a pity, as any reader of this gilt-edged story will vouch.
Andersonville MacKinley Kantor (New American Library, $4.95)
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the death camp known as Andersonville prison, in Georgia. A side of the war obscured by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, the national experience of unreason, violence, and preventable disease and death is pressed home in this massive work.