The new issue of J19 arrived yesterday, and I was reading an essay by Jillian Spivey Caddell entitled "Words of War." The author writes: "This new wave of scholarship suggests that the Civil War has not been so much unwritten as unread." That is an interesting thought. There have been, conservatively, 65,000 books about the war (I'm not sure who has counted, but that's the number passed around). So, if I wanted to read all of them, I would need to plough through about 710 books a year, for 92 years.
Is that what keeps people from digging more into the scholarship of the era? With 65.000+ books, is it too daunting a project to undertake? I don't really feel that is the problem (instead, how about a society that no longer places an importance on its own past. That however, is another post.)
Frequently, I get asked about books - what to read, what I am reading (Sutherland's A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War), etc. So, here is my simple, North Carolina focused list.
1. Bruce Catton - The Civil War (1960)
There are many general histories about the war - Eaton, McPherson, Foote. A lots of people want to start with Shelby Foote's three-volume series, and three years later, they're still reading Foote, or they have given up and gone back to watching Golf TV. While Catton’s history is 55 years old, it is a great introduction to the war (and he could write). This book has been reprinted several times.
2. Bell Wiley - The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943)
Back in my early days of interest in the time period (and in re-enacting), I used to read this book once a year. I would consider this volume a foundational cornerstone. The chapters walk you through the enlistment, battle, food, weapons, camp life, religion, etc. There is also a companion volume, The Life of Billy Yank. Both volumes have been reprinted several times.
3. John G. Barrett - The Civil War in North Carolina (1963)
It is hard to believe that the standard, or go-to book about North Carolina and the War was released 53 years ago. But no one has come close to beating it. It is a stout book, but it walks the reader from the secession crisis through the surrender of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. It has also been reprinted many times.
4. Michael C. Hardy - North Carolina in the Civil War (2011)
Is it wrong to have included one of my own books? Maybe. I did not set out to rewrite Barrett's work. What I wanted to do was to write an introduction to the War in North Carolina, for those intimidated by the almost 500 pages in Barrett. My tome is only 158 pages. The two important things about this work, and why it made it on the list, are the chapters about the post-war remembrance movement in North Carolina (veterans groups, monument dedications, etc), and the bibliography. Barrett ends his story in 1865. North Carolina in the Civil War goes beyond, with short chapters on reconstruction and remembrance. Plus, the updated bibliography will allow readers to dig more deeply into the literature regarding the time period.
5. Mark L. Bradley - Blue Coats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina (2009)
The Reconstruction time period has never held the sway for me as the War years, probably because the South had lost the War, and the North was attempting to remake the South (or something like that). I had tried to read other books on Reconstruction, like Forter's work, but could never really get into it. Bradley's work is well researched and well written, and is very fair in its accounting of the Reconstruction years.
6. Gordon B. McKinney - Zeb Vance: North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader (2004)
There have been a bevy of books about North Carolina's War-time governor, Zebulon Baird Vance. I have Dowd, Tucker, and several more, but I believe that McKinney's work is the best out there. Since Vance was an up and coming politician in North Carolina, served for about a year in the Confederate army, then was our "War-governor" from 1862 until his arrest in May 1865, he was probably more deeply involved in the time period than anyone else.
So there is my short list, a list that does not include any battle histories, nor place histories, nor regimental/brigade histories. Just a list that I believe is a great place to start building a greater knowledge about North Carolina and the Civil War.