Monday, May 24, 2010

Ten Civil War Books: Fiction and Nonfiction

Whether you're a huge Civil War buff or you just like a well-written book to sink your teeth into, give these ten books a try.

FICTION

Look Away and Until the End by Harold Coyle
These two books are about brothers, James and Kevin Bannon from New Jersey. They end up fighting on opposite sides of the war and cross paths at the Battle of Gettysburg. These two books illustrate the life of a soldier and the various reasons why individuals might enter into bloody conflict.

CSA--Confederate States of America by Howard Means
What if the South had won the Civil War? What would the mid-twentieth century look like? In this alternate history, there isn't really a "North" left, the nation's capital is Richmond, Virginia, and the two houses of Congress are completely segregated with one being all white and one being all black. How can the white president and his black vice president keep the country intact yet racially divided, and prevent it from exploding into violence again? There are some interesting things to think about here.

Manassas by James Reasoner
Reasoner has written a ten-book series, of which this is the first. The five Brannon brothers and their sister Cordelia find themselves in the midst of a war they may or may not believe in. They are from Virginia, but they don't necessarily all want to defend the institution of slavery, they simply want to protect their home. From the beginning in Manassas to the end at Appomattox, this series spans the entire war.

Freedom by William Safire
He doesn't cover the entire Civil War, only the first two years or so, stopping at what he sees as a turning point. The neat thing about this book is Safire's ability to write from so many different viewpoints. From Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan to Edwin Stanton and Salmon P. Chase, from John Breckenridge to an unnamed Negro, all angles are covered here. Interspersed among the chapters are entries from the diary of John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries. This book is dense but worth the effort.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The bulk of the action takes place over only three days, but more detail is packed into these pages than in most books covering longer time periods. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863, and Shaara takes his reader right into the planning and the fighting. The major players are all here, but the central figure may be Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, whose Maine regiment helped hold the line and turn the tide toward a Union victory.

NONFICTION

The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat by Bruce Catton
Catton wrote this trilogy for the centennial anniversary of the start of the Civil War. It's a classic work, written in readable narrative form.

Brady's Civil War by Webb Garrison
Mathew Brady was a photographer who captured thousands of images of the war. This book includes many iconic pictures, accompanied by short explanatory entries.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Lincoln appointed several men to his Cabinet who had been rivals in his race for the presidency. Goodwin explains how he managed to convince these men to join him--and each other--in leading the country through its most troubling time.

The Approaching Fury and The Whirlwind of War by Stephen B. Oates
The first book explains the national climate in the decades before the Civil War, and the second book concentrates on the war itself. Both are subtitled Voices of the Storm, and Oates certainly lets his characters speak. He uses the first-person viewpoint, taking actual words from speeches and letters to allow each person to explain events. It is a unique device but one that works. The reader really gets a feel for the personalities behind the actions.

With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates
Oates is a prolific historian, and with this book he turns his attention to Lincoln. There is a little bit here on Lincoln's early life, but quickly it turns to his political life. His election to the presidency occurs almost halfway through the book, when his four-plus years in office and his actions during the Civil War become the focus. This is a detailed account of Lincoln's life in Washington, but it's fairly easy to read.

photo courtesy of Flickr

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