My Top 12 Civil War Books and Five Biographies

Yesterday, Eric Wittenberg published his top 12 Civil War books on his wonderful blog, Rantings of a Civil War Historian. His post was triggered by a similar article by historian and Professor Glenn LaFantasie. I thought this would be interesting to do since I have a large Civil War library. I am using most of the criteria that Eric adopted from Professor LaFantasie:

  • Published after World War II (as with Eric and LaFantasie, this removes many notable narratives from my list)
  • No biographies
  • No narratives from participants of the battles
  • No multi-volume works or series

I have modified my criteria to include multi-volume narratives and one notable book from a participant. In addition, as I am a HUGE fan of biographies, I have included a smaller list of biographies separate of the narrative list. Also, unlike Eric and Professor LaFantasie, I have limited my list to include only books that I would consider to be tactical studies of the battle or campaign. This eliminates several books that most Civil War students would add to their top 12 lists: A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton, Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson and The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, also by Bruce Catton.

While I found it pretty easy to pick out my top 12 battle/campaign narratives, I must say it was much more difficult to put them in rank order. Obviously this is very subjective and I’m certain this order would change slightly if I were to rank them three months from now.

12. Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, by: Kenneth W. Noe – The Battle of Perryville was inevitably one of the most ill-conceived battles that CSA General Braxton Bragg fought. Instead of leading a victorious army to the Ohio River, Bragg would be forced to retreat into central Tennessee. Often the lack of water, caused by the summer and fall drought of 1862, is listed as the impetus for this battle, it probably lies more with faulty intelligence. Bragg believed he was facing a much smaller force than he actually faced. Noe is an excellent story teller and his research of this battle is impeccable. This book is well worth its cost and was recently released in paperback. I interviewed Ken Noe in July 2010 about his newest release, “Reluctant Rebels.” Portions of the interview discussed “Perryville.” To listen to my interview click HERE.

11. For Cause & For Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill & the Battle of Franklin, by: Eric A. Jacobson and Richard A. Rupp – The Affair at Spring Hill and Battle of Franklin have always been two of my favorite engagements in the Western Theater. Eric does a wonderful job portraying the intense fighting at Franklin and Hood’s lost opportunities at Spring Hill. This is a must read for anyone that is interested in the Confederate Army of Tennessee or John Bell Hood.

10. Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, by: Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi – I have studied the Battle of Gettysburg for years. There is a plethora of studies on this battle – so many that I may publish a separate article on my favorites. One thing that has been missing over the years, however, is a study of the Confederate cavalry actions during the Gettysburg Campaign. Published in 2006, by the excellent press Savas Beatie LLC, “Plenty of Blame to Go Around” fills the void on Confederate cavalry actions during the campaign. Wittenberg, considered an expert on Civil War cavalry, partnered with J. David Petruzzi, an expert on the Gettysburg Campaign, to write this detailed analysis. This book is so well written that an experienced Wittenberg reader, such as myself, has difficulty determining which author is writing, when. As always, Savas Beatie published a great book that will last through the generations. If you are a cavalry aficionado, this book needs to be in your library.

9. The Louisiana Tigers in the Gettysburg Campaign: June – July 1863, by: Scott L. Mingus, Sr. – As a student of individual brigades and regiments of the Civil War, I always appreciate histories of individual fighting units. This book provides an operational analysis of the Louisiana Tigers (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Louisiana infantry regiments) which was commanded by Brigadier General Harry T. Hays during the Gettysburg Campaign. Mingus’ vivid prose jumps off the pages while they quickly go by. The author is able to capture the actions of individual soldiers while tightly weaving the narrative into the larger structural analysis that encompasses the Gettysburg Campaign – a tall order indeed. This book details the fighting along Cemetery Ridge on July 2 and 3, 1863 – a brutal clash that is often skimmed over by other Gettysburg studies. If you enjoy reading about Gettysburg, your library is not complete without this great book. I interviewed Scott Mingus in March 2010 about “The Louisiana Tigers.” To listen to my interview click HERE.

8. Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, by: Joseph L. Harsh – Dr. Joseph L. Harsh is one of the foremost experts on the Maryland Campaign of 1862, which included the Battle of Antietam. Grab any modern narrative on this brutal campaign, and look at the notes and bibliography. Without a doubt, Harsh’s “Taken at the Flood” is one of the secondary sources cited. This is, without a doubt, one of the best battle narratives written – on any campaign. It is a must have for any serious student of the Civil War. Sadly, the Civil War community lost a legend when Dr. Harsh passed away in September 2010.

7. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga, by Peter Cozzens – With the exception of Gettysburg, Chickamauga National Battlefield is the battlefield that I have visited most often. It is wonderfully preserved and still has a remoteness about it that takes one back in time. The battle itself is very complex and can be difficult to interpret while tromping the battlefield. My first couple of visits were made before I read Cozzen’s narrative on the battle. Today, I never leave for Chickamauga without this book. It is, without a doubt, the best book written on this sanguinary fight and deserves to be on my top 12 list.

6. From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, by: Jeffry D. Wert – Historian Jeffry Wert is well known in the Civil War community. He has written extensively for Civil War periodicals and has written no less than nine books on the war. I have always admired the gutsy leadership of US Major General Philip Sheridan during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. After nearly reaching Washington City, during the summer of 1864, CSA Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early’s Army of the Valley posed a continuing threat to the north. Wert’s exceptional narrative takes the reader on a detailed journey through Sheridan’s pursuit of Early in the Shenandoah Valley and its near annihilation at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

5. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, by: William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess – Pea Ridge National Battlefield is one of two fields of battle that I consider my “home” battlefields. Situated in northwest Arkansas, Pea Ridge also is known for a wayside tavern located on the battlefield: Elkhorn Tavern. In March of 1862, US Major General Samuel R. Curtis invaded northwest Arkansas to attack the Confederate forces of Major General Earl Van Dorn. The battle was a decisive victory for the United States and would mark the high point in Curtis’ brilliant career. Shea and Hess’ “Pea Ridge” is the definitive study on this battle and is an extremely fast paced book. Their tactical narrative is second to none and their extensive research pays off in a book that is enjoyable to read and overflowing with detail.

4. Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Campaign, May 1864, by: Charles R. Knight. I had limited knowledge of the Battle of New Market before reading Mr. Knight’s first book. Unfortunately it has often been overshadowed by US Major General Phil Sheridan’s decisive Shenandoah Campaign later in 1864. Most notable as the battle that pitted VMI cadets against US Major General Franz Sigel’s Federal forces, it is much more than that. Knight adroitly leads the reader through a battle that terrain played a decisive role in. The imagery the author’s prose paints allows the reader to feel they are taking part in the battle. Knight, who previously worked as a historical interpreter at New Market, uncovered significant amounts of previously unused primary source material for “Valley Thunder.” William C. Davis, author of the well respected “The Battle of New Market” (1983) wrote the foreword for Knight’s book and proclaimed, “Valley Thunder surely takes its place now among the dozen finest and most complete accounts of any Civil War action…” If you have an interest in superb tactical analyses, this narrative deserves a place in your Civil War library. I interviewed Charlie Knight in June 2010 about “Valley Thunder.” To listen to my interview click HERE.

3. The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume 1: South Mountain, by: Ezra Carman edited by: Thomas G. Clemens – Here I deviate from Professor LaFantasie and Wittenberg. Colonel Ezra Carman, of the 13th New Jersey Infantry, wrote one of the most exhaustive studies of the Maryland Campaign. Encompassing years of research and interviews with participants in the campaign, Carman’s unpublished manuscript has been used for decades by historians writing about the campaign. A quick glance through the notes and bibliography of Harsh’s landmark “Taken at the Flood,” (number 8 on this list) reveals countless references to Carman’s work. While Carman’s manuscript reveals his political leanings and potentially jaded criticism of US Major General George B. McClellan, this deficiency is more than overcome by his knowledge and research of the armies’ movements. This is all well and good, but what makes this work superb enough to be on my top 12 list? The footnoting of editor Tom Clemens. Sometimes I am guilty of not reading all of the footnotes. Not so with this book – I devoured all of them. Often Clemens’ candidness would leave me laughing. More often amazed at the depth of his research. If the reader skips the footnotes they are missing what makes this work so phenomenal - Clemens’ extensive research and knowledge of the Maryland Campaign. Kudos also have to go to Savas Beatie LLC. The work in publishing a book is significantly compounded by including all of the footnotes on the page that references them. By taking the extra time, Ted Savas made this book easier and more enjoyable to read. It is well worth the cost. I for one am looking forward to Clemens’ forthcoming analysis of Carman’s manuscript on the Battle of Antietam. I interviewed Dr. Clemens in August 2010 about “The Maryland Campaign of September 1862.” To listen to my interview click HERE.

2. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, by: John J. Hennessy – The Second Battle of Manassas was one of the most devastating defeats for the United States during 1862 – a year that witnessed the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days and the Battle of Fredericksburg. When Abraham Lincoln brought US Major General John Pope east, to command the recently created Army of Virginia, he envisioned two Federal armies, operating as a regional juggernaut, ultimately crushing CSA General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This would require cooperation between the commanding generals of each army if victory was to be achieved. Lincoln did not anticipate the bickering and jealousies that would characterize the relationship between Pope and Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Historian John Hennessy’s narrative on the Second Manassas Campaign is without a doubt the defining work on the campaign.

1) The Overland Series, by: Gordon C. Rhea which includes The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 and Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26 – June 3, 1864. Again, I have charted a different course than Wittenberg and LaFantasie. They chose not to include any multi-part series which left out Gordon Rhea whose series on Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign is by far the best tactical analysis I’ve ever read. What struck me most about this author’s work is how easy they were to read, while being extremely complex in details. Each book in the series stands well by itself, but when taken cumulatively they are absolutely masterful. Comprising nearly 2,100 pages it is the definitive work on the “knock ‘em out” pile driver offensive of General Grant. Rhea provides criticism where appropriate and takes no prisoners in this epic work. I personally look forward to his next book on the final movement of the armies to Petersburg, Virginia.

While I enjoy reading battle narratives more than any other type of book, I would be remiss if I did not mention a few notable biographies that stand out amongst my Civil War titles. The best of these, in my humble opinion, offer detailed historical information on the subject plus well thought out analyses of the leadership of the individual on the battlefield. Additionally, they must be as balanced as possible. Here are my top five Civil War biographies:

5. Grant: A Biography, by: William S. McFeely – This book was the winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for biographies and autobiographies. McFeely does a superb job detailing the life of Hiram Ulysses Grant – better known as Ulysses S. Grant. The book is easy to read and moves at a quick pace. McFeely is critical of many of Grant’s decisions, particularly during his presidency. While Grant’s legacy has improved over the past two decades, I’m certain this book will continue to be the superlative work on our 18th president.

4. Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol, by William C. Davis – Only one general on either side of the American Civil War could claim the honor of being vice president of the United States: John C. Breckinridge. Noted historian, William C. Davis brings this seminal statesman, and soldier, to life in this brilliant study on the Kentuckian. As with all of Davis’ work, it is extremely well researched and interesting to read. Recently re-released by the University Press of Kentucky, it is a massive volume spanning over 700 pages.

3. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, by: James I. Robertson, Jr. – Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is a legend. All one has to do is drive the roads of Northern Virginia to see the reverence his name holds. Roads, shopping centers and monuments dot the countryside paying homage to his name. Robertson’s work takes a pro-southern stance and while it is obvious that Robertson enjoyed writing about him, his biography is very solid. This book is inevitably on many bookshelves throughout the south, but anyone with an interest in the great “Stonewall” should read Robertson’s book.

2. Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg, by: James A. Hessler. For any serious student of the American Civil War the mere mention of Daniel E. Sickles will inevitably conjure up what most historians have written for years – that Sickles was a scoundrel and murderer. Jim Hessler’s book, “Sickles at Gettysburg,” may not change one’s ultimate opinion of the man, but it provides an extremely well balanced look at the controversial man. Few of his era ever questioned his bravery. Most would probably state he was a political general with no business as a high ranking officer in the U.S. Army. The first statement is true. He won promotions mostly partly due to his political connections. The second part of the statement may not be as clear cut. Did Sickles possess a tactical understanding of leading men into battle? Did he keep his cool when leading his men? Did his personal presence on the battlefield inspire his men to fight? Did he operate with alacrity when the situation called for it? Hessler’s well written biography offers the readers a true opportunity to assess Sickles strengths and weaknesses. It is certainly not a “pro-Sickles” biography. Before you answer the questions I have posed, I highly recommend you read “Sickles at Gettysburg.” This is a book I truly enjoyed reading. I interviewed Jim Hessler in July 2009 about “Sickles at Gettysburg.” To listen to my interview click HERE.

1. Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia: A Biography, by: Darrell L. Collins – Once in a great while a biography comes along that provides a “fresh look” at a Civil War officer. Darrell Collins’ recent release, “Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia,” is just such a book. Not only is it a “fresh look,” it is the first biography written on Rodes. Rodes, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), would rise in rank from colonel of the 5th Alabama Infantry to major general in command of a division in the 2d Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. I find it incredulous that a division commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia has never had a biography written about him. Collins’ book is very well written demonstrating the significant amount of time the author spent on research. While his correspondence with his wife, Hortense, is forever lost to history (she burned her personal letters from her husband) Collins was able to obtain many letters exchanged with his father, friends and professional military associates. Rodes was a capable soldier, brave to a fault, a faithful husband and a man of strong moral beliefs. I came away from reading this biography with a much better understanding of Rodes and an appreciation for the courage he demonstrated while leading his troops. If you don’t read any other biography in 2011, I recommend you purchase this fantastic book. I interviewed Darrell Collins in July 2010 about “Major General Robert E. Rodes.” To read the interview click HERE.

While this ranking is subjective, at best, it represents what I believe to be the best books I’ve read. I’m sure through the prism of time, there will be changes to my list. However, I am just as confident that all of these will stand the test time. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on my list. Enjoy your reading and studying in 2011.

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About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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5 Responses to My Top 12 Civil War Books and Five Biographies

  1. Thanks Mike, I’m humbled to be in such company.

  2. Charlie,
    It is much deserved!

  3. Ken Noe says:

    Thanks Mike, I’m honored to make your top dozen. Ken

  4. Hi Ken,
    Happy New Year, friend. Your book deserves to me in my top 12.
    Mike

  5. johnnyreb413 says:

    If you were interested in the Ezra Carman papers and the Maryland Campaign you might also want to check out The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman’s Definitive Study of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam edited by Joseph Pierro. I used this to help in researching Federal artillery batteries at South Mountain. This volume is essential Carman’s exhaustive work compiled into one work. Very useful and chock full of information.

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