Roundtable: Most Influential Books

It's been a quiet week at the blog, as spring break and the recent National Council on Public History's annual conference in Baltimore have taken our time. Still, we've found the time to put together our third roundtable question, where we ask our authors:

What Civil War book has most influenced you? Why?

Our answers vary from the personal to the professional, but we hope the offer insight into the works that have shaped us as scholars, storytellers, and historians. Feel free to share the works that have inspired you below!

Becca Capobianco

I am not sure I could pick out a single, favorite Civil War book (though David Blight’s Race and Reunion and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering are up there).  However, I recently reread Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, and am convinced that not only is it one of the most aptly titled books out there, it is also an incredibly important work for rethinking the standard narrative of the Confederacy’s short-lived political experiment.  McCurry sums up the point of her work very clearly, and unapologetically, stating outright: “Before Confederates were defeated, their political project had failed.”  To be sure, we could debate the difficulties of divorcing the political and military timelines of the war, as well as a myriad of other details, but McCurry does a masterful job of showing just how fully the Confederacy’s peculiar experiment had failed and her reckoning forces modern apologists of the Confederate state to realize that the government Lost Cause enthusiasts claimed might have existed had the war ended differently never really existed at all.

Moreover, McCurry expertly weaves the actions and experiences of those left out of the Confederate body politic – slaves and white women – back into the central narrative of the Civil War.  Too often, the voices of women and slaves emerge only in the words of elite plantation mistresses, slaves who managed to escape to freedom, or in the records of Union policies.  Yet as McCurry makes clear, both groups made their needs known over the course of the war and forced Confederate policy to respond despite initial assertions that they were inherently outside of politics.  By war’s end, the social and political relations the Confederacy had sought to preserve had transformed, and though the question of how newly leveled classes would relate to one another was not settled, as McCurry points out, there was no going back.

In my estimation, there are dual benefits to McCurry’s ultimate conclusions and the evidence she brings to light to prove them.  First, and most simply, Confederate Reckoning demonstrates that those excluded from the Confederate body politic were still influential in the outcome of policies and the war itself.  A ground-up view of the war’s realities reveals that emancipation did not develop in a linear fashion, despite historians’ tendencies to map it alongside the evolution of Union policy towards slaves.  Secondly, a look at the inner-workings of Confederate political policy exposes just how deeply flawed the “states’ rights” argument, as it persists today, truly is.  Despite some people’s desire to glorify the Confederacy as an embodiment of Constitutional philosophies of limited central government and self-determination, in truth any policy of disenfranchisement is always inherently anti-democratic.  The new birth of the Union, redeemed as Confederates hoped it might be, was a “proslavery nation and a white man’s republic.”

Ultimately, whether you agree with all of McCurry’s conclusions or not, Confederate Reckoning serves as a foundational text with regards to the politics of the Civil War Era.  The various lens McCurry uses, and the examples she explores are integral points of consideration when studying the war and serve as incredibly worthwhile launching points for discussions of democracy, slavery, gender, and ultimately the definition of politics in a world at war.

Zac Cowsert

books that have shaped us: Harold Keith's  Rifles for Watie , Stephanie McCurry's  Confederate REckoning , and Drew Gilpin Faust's  This REpublic of Suffering

books that have shaped us: Harold Keith's Rifles for Watie, Stephanie McCurry's Confederate REckoning, and Drew Gilpin Faust's This REpublic of Suffering

A fifth-grader at Hayes Elementary School in Enid, Oklahoma, I plucked a small paperback book of the shelves of our library. The book’s cover—depicting a young Union soldier in the heat of battle—sealed my interest, and I checked out Harold Keith’s Rifles for Watie. A Newberry Award winning novel, it tells the fictional story of young Kansan Jeff Bussey as he experiences both war and love in both blue and gray in Indian Territory. Some fifteen odd years later, I’m working towards my Ph.D. in American history with a dissertation exploring the Civil War in Indian Territory.

In college, although my interest in the Civil War never faded, for a time it took a backseat to my growing interest in politics and international relations. Indeed, when people asked what I studied, I usually replied “political science and history.” At an annual book fair in Shreveport, I purchased Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Army of the Potomac for five bucks (an absolute steal). A few weeks later, lying in bed unable to fall asleep, I grabbed Catton’s first volume and began to read. I finished the book that night; finished the trilogy within the week. It rekindled my passion for history, and it inspired me to reconsider what a historical profession might entail—a reconsideration that led me to introduce myself as a “history and political science” major, that encouraged me to work for the National Park Service on Civil War battlefields, and ultimately that propelled me to graduate school.

Of course, there are many reasons why I study what I study today. But undoubtedly these books left indelible marks on my life. They influenced who I became, who I want to become, and how I want to get there. They have pushed me to become a Civil War historian, and I owe it in part to the well-written words of Harold Keith and Bruce Catton.

Katie Logothetis Thompson

I do not have one favorite or influential book about the Civil War that inspired me or was my favorite since childhood. If I look back to when I was younger, my passion for the Civil War really started with a trip to Gettysburg when I was in eighth grade. I became obsessed with the monuments on the battlefield and so the first two Civil War books I ever purchased were Gettysburg Monuments: A Field Guide to the Monuments and Markers Located on the Gettysburg Battlefield and Frederick Hawthorn’s Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments as Told by Battlefield Guides. Those two, well-worn books still have a special place on my shelf.

In terms of more scholarly books, there are a few that are central to my experience and definitely worth a read. For teaching, one of my favorite books to use is Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion. It is a short book (not overwhelming for students) and it really makes students think about the role of slavery in the Civil War. It also includes primary sources which is a valuable tool for professors to use.

In my field of Civil War mental trauma, here are a few of the more influential books to my research that I have really enjoyed reading. Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering really shifted the field of soldier studies to focus on how soldiers dealt with death during the war and Kathryn S. Meier’s Nature’s Civil War is relatively new, but also provides a new view on the soldier experience. While some consider it problematic, Eric T. Dean, Jr.’s Shook Over Hell was the first book to really connect PTSD to the Civil War; his viewpoint is continued in other books such as Dennis Brandt’s Pathway to Hell which reads more like a story than a history book. All of these books have been influential to my research, but more importantly are enjoyable to read as well.

Becky Oakes

“This is a book about the work of death in the American Civil War. It seeks to describe how between 1861 and 1865 – and into the decades that followed – Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized. Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it. And if they are survivors, they must assume new identities established by their persistence in face of others’ annihilation. The presence and fear of death touched Civil War Americans’ most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition.”

As historians, we often hear claims from family, friends, and even random people at the car dealership as to why they have never been able to “get into” history. Usually it follows along the pattern of, “I could never memorize all of those facts and dates.” Even worse are the accusations that this rote memorization makes history boring. We are left with the choice of just to smile and nod, or to try to explain that the study of history is much more complicated, much more dynamic, and infinitely more fascinating than this most basic understanding. But the truth is that many of those who now work in history used to have the same misimpression.

Like many, I grew up believing that the study of history was largely comprised of facts and dates. The difference was I always enjoyed facts, dates, and trivia in general. If I did not, I probably never would have entered college wanting to be a history major. It was not until the middle of my freshman year, specifically when I began reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, that I realized studying history was about so much more.

In terms of not only books about the Civil War Era, but books in general, This Republic of Suffering is undoubtedly in the top five works that have influenced my life.

Drew Gilpin Faust taught me a lot about the historical profession. I have always been interested in the more macabre topics within the human experience, so a book on death during the Civil War caught my attention. After reading This Republic of Suffering for the first time, I found that I not only had a better understanding of how 19th century Americans lived, died, and grieved, but also how to approach studying historical actors. Most people realize that 19th century Americans lived differently than us; Hollywood and school field trips to local historic sites usually get us that far. But the fact that 19th century Americans thought differently than us is something not always understood. Faust argues that the Civil War changed how Americans thought about death, and this sparked my curiosity about what else the Civil War changed and how it still affects us today.

This book continued to influence my study of history as my collegiate career continued and I became a producer of history as well as a consumer. When choosing topics for research papers and eventually walking tours, I was drawn to exploring both wider cultural trends, and how those trends affected thought and everyday life. I wanted to know how historical people thought about themselves and their societies. Also fascinating to me was what happened when those cultural trends were disrupted by a traumatic national event such as the Civil War. I realized I wanted to someday write books like Faust’s.

As my career in history enters a new phase, and I become more and more interested in how to bridge the divide between academic history and the public, I again look to This Republic of Suffering for inspiration. Faust’s book is an academic work of the highest caliber. But it can also be found in battlefield bookstores, public libraries, and the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Some of this may be due to the natural interest a universal topic like death holds. But this book is also elegantly written and entirely readable. Faust proves that big ideas can be presented in fewer than 500 pages and without cumbersome jargon. A book can both change the field and be easily read by a college freshman with little background knowledge beyond some facts and dates.

Perhaps most significantly, this book taught me that history is not about facts and dates, but about people and stories. It’s about hardship, upheaval, suffering, and often death. But it is also about how people persevere, overcome, and change.

Becca Capobianco currently works as an education consultant and seasonal Park Ranger with the National Park Service.  She received her Master's Degree in U.S. and Public History from Villanova University and has worked as an adjunct professor of history at Germanna Community College. Becca will be pursuing her PhD in 19th century U.S. history somewhere in the state of Virginia in the fall.

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.

Becky Oakes, a graduate of Gettysburg College, received her master’s degree in 19th-century U.S. History and Public History from West Virginia University.  She is an historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and is continuing her education by pursuing her PhD, also at WVU. Becky’s research focuses on Civil War memory and cultural heritage tourism, specifically the development of built commemorative environments.