Separate the wheat from the chaff through bibliographies.
The deluge of Civil War-related publications during the sesquicentennial complicates the problem of separating the wheat from the chaff in a literature that runs to scores of thousands of titles. Attempting to keep abreast of new work can be confusing and frustrating, and the process of trying to find the best of the enormous older literature poses even greater challenges. A look at Catalogue of Library of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel John Page Nicholson…Relating to the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 suggests how quickly the literature grew. Privately printed in 1914, this 1,022-page tome includes thousands of items Nicholson collected during the half-century following the war. Had Nicholson not excluded titles on the naval war and on Lincoln, as well as what he termed “scurrilous books,” the number would have been far larger. In the century since Nicholson’s catalog appeared, many thousands of additional books have rendered even more perilous the shoals of Civil War historiography.
The best way to lay out a program of reading or collecting is to explore some of the better bibliographies. I would start with David J. Eicher’s The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography (1997). This volume evaluates 1,100 titles, providing bibliographical information about original editions and reprints and up to a full two-column page of annotation. Although its emphasis is on the military side of the conflict, Eicher includes hundreds of nonmilitary titles, and his comments are perceptive and sometimes critical. Describing John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, for example, Eicher notes its “many lively anecdotes” but alerts readers that a number “are the product of the general’s fertile imagination.” Overall, Gordon’s “outstanding career, keen military insight, and enjoyable style make this a highly important work.”
Thirty years before Eicher’s book, Allan Nevins, James I. Robertson Jr. and Bell I. Wiley edited Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography (2 vols., 1967, 1969; reprinted in 1 vol., 1996). I spent countless hours leafing through these books as a young student of the war and still keep them close by. A cooperative venture for which eminent scholars succinctly annotated entries grouped under 15 categories, this bibliography covered nearly 6,000 books published before the mid-1960s. Unlike Eicher’s book, which omits titles of little value, Civil War Books casts a much wider net. Readers will find, within a page of one another, John G. Barnard’s The C.S.A. and the Battle of Bull Run. (A Letter to an English Friend) dismissed as “An untrustworthy and pretentious revamping of published reports and accounts by a chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac,” and John Bigelow’s The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study accurately described as “A masterful study—one of the very finest ever written on an American campaign; thoroughly documented and notably impartial.”
A two-volume set guides readers to 400 titles relating to the Confederacy, supplying a great deal of information and some engaging commentary. Richard B. Harwell’s
In Tall Cotton: The 200 Most Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher and Collector (1978; reprinted 2006) took as its inspiration Douglas Southall Freeman’s The South to Posterity: An Introduction to the Writing of Confederate History (1939; paperback reprint 1998). “I cannot presume to bring [Freeman’s] work up to date,” Harwell observes. “I have tried to bring the coverage of the same topic up to date in my own way.” Harwell’s annotation ranges from a single terse sentence in some cases to more than two dozen lines in others. Although some of his choices are unusual—a prime example is Hervey Allen’s forgettable novel Action at Aquilla— Harwell lists many important titles. In Taller Cotton: 200 More Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher, and Collector, which Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr., Robert K. Krick and I compiled in 2006, adds several titles published since Harwell’s book as well as some important ones he left out. In his prefatory note, Krick addresses the fact that we each brought different sensibilities to the task: “Professors Hughes and Gallagher are interested in things about which I care not at all, as will be obvious from the listings, and a couple of Professor Gallagher’s choices seem to me to be ineffably dreadful books.” An impartial referee might, in turn, consider some of Krick’s selections as idiosyncratic. Therein lies the attraction of anointing certain books from an enormous pool of candidates.
For Union topics with a heavy emphasis on military affairs, readers can consult The Union Bookshelf: A Selected Civil War Bibliography (1982). Michael Mullins and Rowena Reed selected 246 titles, “including several superior regimental histories and participant accounts,” annotated 114 of the entries, and gave bibliographical information about both original and reprint editions of all the titles. The authors acknowledge a degree of “subjectivity in making choices” and sometimes indulge in excessive praise, as when they describe William M. Lamers’ The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans (1961), a pedestrian effort at best, as a “fully documented” work giving “the complete story” of its subject.
Firsthand accounts published during the second half of the 20th century inspired Garold L. Cole’s Civil War Eyewitnesses: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles, 1955-1986 and Civil War Eyewitnesses: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles, 1986-1996 (1988, 2000). In Vol. 1, Cole explains that “diaries, journals, letters, and memoirs constitute the majority of the 1,395 items. Anthologies and special studies that utilize personal narratives exclusively and discuss the genre of Civil War eyewitness writings are also included.” The second volume adds 596 items, grouped, as in the first volume, under headings such as “The North,” “The South” and “Anthologies and Studies.” Soldiers, civilians and foreign travelers are well represented, and Cole’s annotation tends to be descriptive rather than analytical.
These bibliographies form the basis for a sound reading list or basic library of titles published through the early 21st century. Reviews in magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals and online sites are the best options to track more recent publications in a literature that long ago assumed unmanageable size.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.