Some of 2015’s best Civil War books … so far

Publishers in 2015 offer excellent work that both casual and serious readers of the Civil War should know about.

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Biographies, campaign studies, general histories, and analyses form the core of any season’s mountain of Civil War scholarship, but publishers in 2015 offer excellent work that both casual and serious readers of the Civil War should know about. The rich bounty is likely — in part, at least — a result of the sesquicentennial sunshine that bathed the Civil War academic field for the last five years. Here are a few highlights.

No publishing season is stronger than when Gary W. Gallagher contributes one of his essay anthologies on a military campaign. Late September will see Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 360 pp., $35), edited by Gallagher and Caroline E. Janney. The title suggests their overall argument, which marks the end of the pointless Battle of the Crater as the true conclusion of the brutal three-month-long confrontation between Lee and Grant in 1864. Only then, the historians argue, did siege warfare become the Union’s primary tool for the final strangulation of the Confederacy’s most important army and capital city. As with each of the entries in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series, contributors examine military strategies and tactics, focus on particular participants, and consider how home-front politics and civilian expectations affected and were affected by Confederate military strategy.

J. Matthew Gallman offers a fascinating intellectual and cultural history with Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front (University of North Carolina Press, 336 pp., $45), in which he considers how Northerners perceived their obligations of duty and citizenship as their nation endured civil war. He explores how novels and songs, poems and news stories, editorials and cartoons all contributed citizens’ understanding of where they fit in the home-front tapestry and how they could each contribute to the war effort. Race, class, and gender all played key roles in that psychological and political dynamic, and Gallman’s work skillfully weaves together those elements into a fresh historical analysis.

Bradley R. Clampitt’s The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory (University of Nebraska Press, 200 pp., $25) promises a fascinating examination of the dynamics of war, political power, the collapse of slavery, and racial re-ordering within the context of Native America. Clampitt assembles a bouquet of essays by stellar scholars to explore the antebellum, wartime, and postwar tensions between tribes and nations, their calculated loyalties to North or South, and questions over the future of former slaves and indigenous participants in the war. Any understanding of the historical scope and effect of the Civil War’s overall political and social consequences is incomplete without an intelligent incorporation of Indian experiences and memories. Clampitt’s collection, scheduled for a December release, is certainly a work to anticipate and savor.

Pair that perspective with The World the Civil War Made (University of North Carolina Press, 392 pp. $29.95), an essay anthology edited by Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur. More than a dozen stellar historians consider how postwar policies and consequences rippled throughout specific political and social dynamics in U.S. territories, in the U.S. Southwest, and across the world. The work’s great strength is its embrace of multiple national and international stories unfolding simultaneously, affecting and affected by each other, all contributing to a vibrant array of societies grappling with new notions of liberty and republicanism in a post-slavery world.

Terry Alford contributes a long-overdue re-assessment of John Wilkes Booth with Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth (Oxford University Press, 416 pp., $29.95). Alford’s Booth carried multiple psychological burdens throughout his life. He endured the pressure of measuring up to his successful thespian father and brothers. His inherent gifts as an actor/performer quickly shoved his life under a burning and blinding spotlight of celebrity. His fury over the Confederacy’s defeat warped his identity from an actor into a self-proclaimed citizen-soldier defending Southern honor and survival, with a deadly determination to seize a starring role on the Civil War’s bloodstained stage. These pressures combined to turn Booth into the madman who concocted multiple harebrained plots to destabilize the Lincoln administration. Booth doomed the post-war prospects of racial peace and progress with a single gunshot, and he catapulted Andrew Johnson, one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, into the center of political power just when Lincoln’s political genius was most needed.

Mark Smith presents a fascinating examination of the sights, sounds, and scents of war with The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 216 pp., $22.36). Basing his exploration on descriptions he found in letters and other primary sources, he attempts to reconstruct what it felt like to be submerged in a Confederate submarine, what it tasted like to live in a city under Union siege, and what it sounded like to hear Confederate shells pound Fort Sumter into submission. Too few historical works explore their subjects from such an elemental and creative perspective. Smith offers details that belong in every lecture, speech, and conversation about the Civil War.

James M. McPherson offers a book-length response to the deceptively simple question, “why does the Civil War matter?” His recent work, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (Oxford University Press, 224 pp., $27.95), is more relevant than ever. If nothing else, the violent first half of 2015 offered stark and violent case studies to bolster his arguments. There was certainly no better example than recent debates over the Confederate flag, its multifaceted significance throughout the U.S., and the reasons for and against its presence amidst the everyday imagery of American life and culture.

Public and political bitterness over the intractability and enduring power of institutional racism, the historical understanding and explanation of the reasons for the Civil War, the long journey of civil rights through the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries, debates over the power of federal and state governments — all are titanic, central, and deeply painful issues that the Civil War confronted like no other event in U.S. history. Every citizen’s pursuit of happiness intersects with or passes over or under each of these issues, among many others, and a better understanding of the war affords all of us better maneuverability past the heated rhetoric, better capacity to comprehend how those issues shape our societies, and better appreciation of our history’s overall vital importance to our American life.

Also:

I recently received wonderful news from the Society of Civil War Historians. According to their press release, the Society and the Watson-Brown Foundation honored Shauna Devine, assistant history professor at the University of Western Ontario, with the Tom Watson Brown Book Award for 2015 for her excellent 2014 book Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science (University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 384 pp., $39.95). The book explored how the war enabled U.S. physicians to improve their medical expertise, share their hard-won knowledge in new ways, and link their experiences with the larger international medical community. It was crucial to my recent work as a research assistant as I broadened and deepened my understanding of Civil War medical history. Highly recommended.

Read more about Devine’s honor here.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Restless and wretched

Everyone around Stone is gloomy following verification of Lee’s defeat.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Everyone around Stone is gloomy following verification of Lee’s defeat.

May 17, 1865

Tyler, Texas

Just a succession of callers and calls. Everybody too restless and wretched to stay at home. Must talk it over with somebody. Such a constant succession of people is very tiring. Went about ten miles over the roughest roads to a fish fry at a tiny creek where I doubt there ever was a fish. A gay day, but quite exhausted at late bedtime when the last gentlemen left. Mamma was wise not to go.

We have finished Lt. Holmes’ grey suit, and it was a job. I hope no other soldier of our acquaintance is in need of clothes. Such sewing palls on one. Mamma is most energetic about it.

Mollie Moore and Lt. Holmes were with us until nine tonight, and then Dr. McGregor, Maj. Squires, Lt. Dupre, and Capt. Giday came and stayed until eleven. These two new men belong to a Louisiana battery of artillery and camped here only one night on their way to the Brazos for forage. Both are Creoles and entertaining. Lt. Holmes, Sister, and I had a pleasant visit to Mrs. Levy.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Torrents of blood

Stone learns of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and she is happy he is dead. Her grim satisfaction is little comfort as all around her are convinced that Lee has surrendered.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone learns of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and she is happy he is dead. Her grim satisfaction is little comfort as all around her are convinced that Lee has surrendered.

Note that she heard that John Surratt, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, attacked Secretary of State William Seward. Lewis Powell, another member of the Booth group, actually carried out the attack. He failed to kill Seward but badly injured him.

 

April 28, 1865

Tyler, Texas

We hear that Lincoln is dead. There can be no doubt, I suppose, that he has been killed by J. W. Booth. “Sic semper tyrannis” as his brave destroyer shouted as he sprang on his horse. All honor to J. Wilkes Booth, who has rid the world of a tyrant and made himself famous for generations. Surratt has also won the love and applause of all Southerners by his daring attack on Seward, whose life is trembling in the balance. How earnestly we hope our two avengers may escape to the South where they will meet with a warm welcome. It is a terrible tragedy, but what is war but one long tragedy? What torrents of blood Lincoln has caused to flow, and how Seward has aided him in his bloody work. I cannot be sorry for their fate. They deserve it. They have reaped their just reward.

There is great gloom over the town. All think that Lee and his army have surrendered. No one will take the Confederate money today, and as there is no gold in circulation there is no medium of exchange. Rumors, rumors, but nothing definite. Lee is certainly captured. Our strong arm of victory, the chief hope of our Country, is a prisoner with an army variously estimated at from 6,000 to 43,000 men captured on their retreat from Richmond. Dr. Kunckers told us as a secret that [Joseph E.] Johnston with his entire army has surrendered, but that news is suppressed through motives of policy. Our papers say Johnston’s army has been reinforced by the flower of Lee’s army, that he has a band of tried veterans and will make a determined stand. We know not what to believe. All are fearfully depressed. Lee’s defeat is a crushing blow hard to recover from. Maybe after a few days we can rally for another stand. Now, most seem to think it useless to struggle longer, now that we are subjugated. I say, “Never, never, though we perish in the track of their endeavor!” Words, idle words. What can poor weak women do?

I cannot bear to hear them talk of defeat. It seems a reproach to our gallant dead. If nothing else can force us to battle on for freedom, the thousands of grass-grown mounds heaped on mountainside and in every valley of our country should teach us to emulate the heroes who lie beneath and make us clasp closer to our hearts the determination to be free or die. “When the South is trampled from the earth / Her women can die and be free.”

I say with my whole soul:

Shame to the traitor-heart that springs
To the faint, soft arms of Peace,
Though the Roman eagle shook his wings
At the very gates of Greece.

Monday it was distressing to see the gloom on every face. We had an impromptu dining that day, and all seemed in the depths of despair, could think and talk of nothing but defeat and disaster. … The war was discussed in all its bearings. Seldom has there been a gloomier feast. Yesterday took dinner with Mrs. Prentice and returned in time to receive Mollie Sandford, Lt. Holmes, Lt. Martin, and Dr. Winn, a nice Texan and a friend of Dr. Buckner’s, whom he saw about six weeks ago. …

If My Brother and Uncle Bo are among the prisoners, it is probable they will soon be paroled and at home. But we know not what has been their fate.

When Johnny first heard the ill news, he was wild with excitement and insisted on joining the army at once. We were wretched about him, but today he has quieted down and is willing to await further developments.

We expected to move to our new house on Monday, and Mamma is worried about paying the rent. If the Negroes are freed, we will have no income whatever, and what will we do? As things have turned out, we wish we could stay here until we know what is to be our fate.

 

Kate Stone’s Civil War: God spare us

The rumors finally reach Tyler: Lee may have surrendered to Grant. The Stone family refuses to believe it.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

The rumors finally reach Tyler: Lee may have surrendered to Grant. The Stone family refuses to believe it.

Stone is especially detailed in this entry, perhaps burying herself in mundane moments to drive back the looming and crushing reality of Confederate defeat.

April 23, 1865

Tyler, Texas

Such terrible news if true, but we cannot believe it. We know that we have met with fearful reverses this year. All our coast cities are conquered: gallant old Charleston has fallen, Wilmington and Mobile have passed out of our hands, and Richmond … has been taken. But all that is nothing compared to the awful report from the Yankee papers that Gen. Lee, our strong arm of defense, has capitulated with 40,000 men without firing a gun, that most of our best generals were taken at the same time, and that what remains of that noble army is only a disorganized mob of despairing men. All this is too dreadful to believe. God spare us from this crushing blow and save our dying country!

All refuse to believe such disaster, and the home life flows on as usual. Two dramatic performances by the natives, the amiable Capt. Johnson saying he did not wish the refugees even to attend. Mrs. Gary is vice-president, and I am secretary of the society. The gentlemen come in the evening and the ladies call in the day, but over every pleasure sweeps the shadow of the evil news. It may be true. It may be true. Mollie Moore, Lt, Holmes, and I rode out to the armory to see the soldiers drill. Met Col. and Mrs. Hill, all sympathizing with Capt. Polys, who fell down while pulling the bell rope and broke his leg in two places.

Just finished three embroidered cravats for Johnny. Friday Mamma and I finished a beautiful fawn-colored barege trimmed with black lace. It looks real stylish. My old white dress has been dyed by Lucy. She has become quite an adept at dyeing things.

The rain came down in torrents Thursday but in the afternoon ceased and I rode up to school for Sister. Came through boggy roads and rushing streams at sundown. Found Lt. Holmes waiting to go with me to Mrs. Carson’s to tea, to stay there until 8:30, and then to drive over to Dr. Moore’s, Mollie’s father’s, to attend a private rehearsal. We had a pleasant time there until twelve, then the drive home, adieux to Lt. Holmes, and then the blessed oblivion of sleep. Went up to return Eliza Roberts’ call late in the afternoon.

Lt. Holmes caught up with me and came home and spent the evening. Busy sewing Tuesday until Lt. Holmes was announced, then had to spend the balance of the day amusing him. After he bowed himself away, I went over to see Mollie Moore and chatter nonsense. …

Had delicious white cake at Mrs. Lawrence’s. All the members of the troupe wanted Mamma for president of the society, but she would not hear of it. Mrs. Swain, a perfect incapable, was called to the chair. Capt. Buck has brought me a book nicely commenced for my official records, and Lt. Holmes is to see they are kept according to rule. Must send it around for members to sign.

Mamma has been much disturbed on the subject of details for Mr. Smith, but Lt. Dupre arranged the detail as he passed through Marshall. She hopes to have no further trouble on that score. …

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Peace blessed peace

Stone senses the end of the war is coming soon. She predicts the war will end no sooner than October 1865.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone senses the end of the war is coming soon. She predicts the war will end no sooner than October 1865.

Feb. 13, 1865

Tyler, Texas

Great Peace rumors are afloat, and Gen. Lee has certainly given Grant’s army a good drubbing. If he could only have annihilated them, we could sing. … God grant our dear boys may be unhurt. Dame Rumor is furloughing every fifth man in the Virginia Army who lives on this side of the Mississippi, and there is so much good news that the multitudes are jubilant. The more hopeful predict peace by July, but I think it will not come before October is painting the woods in autumn hues. What a lovely season it will be to journey home with peace blessed peace quieting all the land and nothing to molest or make us afraid. How joyfully will we take up our line of march for dear old Louisiana. What a merry cavalcade we shall be.

How the shriek of that steam whistle startled me, transporting me for the minute to the bank of the far rolling Mississippi.

Mrs. Bruce must think we are agents for renting houses. A letter from her introducing Capt. Pritchard, and one from him asking us as a great favor to rent a house for his family, who are on the way and will be here in about two weeks. Will wait until Mamma gets back, and then we will go on another house-hunting expedition. It is rather a trying job as the owners of the houses wish us to be responsible for the rent, and in this case we do not even know the people. These wily Texans want to bind one with all kinds of written documents, unintelligible but terrible in my eyes. I would not sign one for anything. Mamma attends to all that. …

Yesterday Little Sister fell off the gallery striking her head on a rock pile, making several deep gashes, and today it pains too much for her to attend school, though she took her music lesson. Little Sally has improved so much. She is a pretty curly-headed little thing with golden hair and blue eyes and is a great pet with us all. But she can never take Beverly’s place in our hearts — the perfect little child only lent to earth to show mortals how fair are the angels in Heaven. …

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Those terrible battles

The horror of the Overland Campaign hangs over the Stone household but she holds out hope Lee will outsmart Grant in the end.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

The horror of the Overland Campaign hangs over the Stone household but she holds out hope Lee will outsmart Grant in the end.

Again Stone impresses with her ability to illustrate everyday life and mores in so few detailed sentences. Note how the Stones and their friends are now regularly visiting Union prisoners at the nearby Confederate camp.

June 19, 1864

Tyler, Texas

A letter from My Brother but dated three months ago. He writes very sadly and thinks he will not see us again until the war is over. He was safe on the fourth of May, but it was on the fifth that those terrible battles commenced. We see from the papers that his corps was engaged every day. The fate of Richmond still trembles in the balance. Lee’s army has fallen back within the fortifications, and Grant is beginning to burrow as they did at Vicksburg. The most thrilling report is that Beauregard has captured Butler and 9,000 men. May it only be true. …

We have quite a trip in contemplation. Mamma is thinking of going to Monroe [La.] on business and taking me and one of the boys on for a pleasure jaunt. Which one of the boys depends on Mrs. Savage, who thinks of joining us with Emily. In that event Mamma will leave Jimmy at home as affairs are getting too interesting with Jimmy and Emily. He is too susceptible, and Mrs. Savage is too much of a matchmaker for Jimmy to be hourly exposed to such fascination for the next two weeks. Emily is a designing, forward girl, exceedingly so for her age. Jimmy is making every preparation to go with us and join the army at Monroe and will be horribly disappointed if Mamma refuses her consent.

Our usual refugee visitors. Yesterday evening returning from a ride, Jimmy and I were called in by Mrs. Carson, who begged us to stay to supper, at which we enjoyed delightful venison, killed by Jimmy Carson, and some of Mrs. Carson’s new style marmalade excellent. Read the papers to Mrs. Carson and rode home in the most glorious moonlight.

Mamma is very sad since receiving My Brother’s letter. She is very anxious about him. We have a nice set of real chessmen, made by one of the prisoners. We loaned them some days ago to the hospital in response to a polite note asking for them. The boys often go there. They have taken a great fancy to Mr. Griffin, a wounded boy. He must be a nice young fellow. Mamma and Mrs. Carson and some of the other ladies go quite frequently.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: To kill and destroy

As a Tyler mob hangs suspected jayhawkers, disease ravages the Union prisoners of war, and an unsympathetic Stone refuses to help them. She hears rumors of a great battle in Virginia between the “Invincible Lee” and his new adversary, Ulysses S. Grant.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

As a Tyler mob hangs suspected jayhawkers, disease ravages the Union prisoners of war, and an unsympathetic Stone refuses to help them. She hears rumors of a great battle in Virginia between the “Invincible Lee” and his new adversary, Ulysses S. Grant.

May 18, 1864

Tyler, Texas

There was a terrible tragedy enacted here today. Three men, noted Jayhawkers, were taken out of jail and just out of town were hanged by mob law. It is horrible and makes one shudder to think of it, though it is said they richly deserved their fate. The leader of the gang was the sheriff of the county, and the two who suffered with him were his sons-in-law. They were not from this county.

Three Yankees died today at the hospital, which is not strange as they are so dreadfully crowded and have the roughest fare. But we cannot help them. They should have stayed in their own bountiful country instead of coming down here to kill and destroy. Our good news continues. Steele and Banks are still falling back. A great battle is rumored in Virginia, Grant’s first fight in his “On to Richmond.” He is opposed by the Invincible Lee, and so we are satisfied we won the victory. But it makes us anxious for My Brother.

Hutch Bowman was here for two or three days and has gone on to his command. He and Joe are together. Hutch is dreadfully tanned, looks a regular Texan, a slow, good boy but a great romp. We see Mrs. Savage, Julia, and Mrs. Carson every day. Julia is crazy to get back to Camden. As we prophesied, she does not like it here. But I would let the Major come for me. I would not go to him even in times of war.

For the last few days no stages have come in, and how we do miss the mails, one of Tyler’s chief attractions. Jimmy Stone has stopped going to school and studies English at home. He is eager to get off to the army. Uncle Johnny, Kate, and the baby are all improving and look less like shadows and more like human beings.

Civil War infographical coolness

Check out this cool infographic from the Civil War Trust. Some may argue over the numbers but the endeavor and creativity at the heart of it are commendable.

Check out this cool infographic from the Civil War Trust. Some may argue over the numbers but the endeavor and creativity at the heart of it are commendable.

Click on the graphic itself to see a bigger version.


Civil War Trust - Battles of the Civil War

Brought to you by The Civil War Trust