Causes of the American Civil War

Published by the National Park Service

There are many reasons that the American Civil has attracted substantial and sustained popular and academic attention, but at the heart of any explanation must be the multitude of voices. In many respects, the war gave voice to all sorts of Americans, everyone from top military commanders planning strategy to illiterate civilians scrawling an "X" onto petitions addressed to public officials. In turn, this has produced a cacophony of warring tongues and pens arguing over the causes, course, and consequences of this central event in American history.

Causes of the War

Traditional approaches to the studying the Civil have often been narrowly political and military though in recent years social historians have announced with great fanfare that they have rediscovered the Civil War. The opening salvo was fired in an influential collection of essays: Maris A. Vinovskis, ed., Toward a Social History of the American Civil War: Explanatory Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Ironically on the causes of the war itself, the most important works are quite traditional in both content and interpretation. The standard book on the coming of the war is still David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper and Row, 1976). Historians have not generally embraced Potter's mildly revisionist interpretation, but no subsequent work has matched his magisterial sweep or penetrating analysis. Potter dealt with political maneuvering more than political ideas, but Eric Foner emphasized ideology in his outstanding study of the Republican party, Free Soil, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). A work that sheds great light on the whole question of slavery in the national territories is Michael A. Morrison, Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Two useful anthologies that cover the major schools of interpretation are Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. The Causes of the Civil War (New York: Touchstone, 1991) and Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Why the Civil War Came (Gettysburg Civil War Institute Books)(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Recent historians of the antebellum South have emphasized the diversity and to some extent the disunity of the region. This is especially true in the first volume of William W. Freehling's long-awaited study: The Road to Disunion: Volume I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Road to Disunion Vol. 1) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). Anyone who still believes that slavery was not central to the coming of the Civil War should study Charles B. Dew's tightly-focused monograph Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001). A very readable and detailed account of the Sumter crisis is Maury Klein, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

The Confederacy

The nature of southern nationalism and the Confederacy continues to attract attention. Drew Gilpin Faust emphasized the construction of Confederate identity by examining symbols, religion, economic questions, and slavery in The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (The Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History) (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988). For a lively narrative that also offers a scathing indictment of the Confederate political system as an assault on democratic principles and practices, see William C. Davis, Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America (New York: Free Press, 2002). For a different take on Confederate political culture that emphasized antiparty values, see George C. Rable, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). On the broader question of Confederate ends and means, see Emory M. Thomas, The Confederacy As a Revolutionary Experience (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971).

Social historians have ironically studied the Confederacy far more extensively than the Union. This is especially true in women's history where there are no northern counterparts to the broad treatment and analysis in George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Women in American History)(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) and Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). But interested readers should also consult a wide-ranging and provocative collection of essays: Catherine Clinton, and Nina Silber, eds., Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. James Marten actually discovered an unexplored topic in Civil War history and through ingenious research produced a fine study that deserves the attention of both social and military historians: (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Consequences of the War

Traditionally historians interested in the results of the Civil War have simply studied the tangled issues of the Reconstruction period. Eric Foner's comprehensive treatment, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper Collins, 1989) that emphasizes political, economic, and racial questions still dominates the field. A more human story is told in Leon F. Litwack's classic Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). The two standard works that examine the influence of the Lost Cause in postwar southern society are Gaines Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) and Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920(Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1980). For a finely woven analysis of the role of Civil War memory in our national consciousness, see David Blight's prize-winning, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Military History of the War--Introduction

In contradictory and complex ways, the military history of the Civil War has been both shaped and bypassed by the newer approaches to studying the Civil War. Students of strategy, operations, and tactics have often plowed very traditional ground have sometimes been more receptive to new approaches than social historians have been to studying military topics. Even before the Civil War ended, the military history of the conflict was being written, and the outpouring of books, articles, and ephemera has never stopped. For the war in general, the place to begin is Steven E. Woodworth, The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996) To select the most important and most readable works from such a vast literature is a daunting task. Of enormous help in sorting through a mass of material is David Eicher's careful evaluation of 1100 volumes in The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). A recent collection of historiographical essays—including several dealing with military subjects—assesses the current state of the field: James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr., ed. Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998). For military studies in particular, including both primary and secondary works, there is the invaluable (albeit badly in need of updating) C. E. Dornbusch, Military Bibliography of the Civil War: General References, Armed Forces, & Campaigns & Battle (4 vols.; New York and Dayton, Oh.: New York Public Library and Morningside: 1961-1987). Another older but very useful and annotated compilation is Allan Nevins, James I. Robertson, Jr., and Bell I. Wiley, Civil War Books : A Critical Bibliography (two volumes) ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967-69). Anyone interested in the perspective of participants should consult Garold L. Cole's excellent compendia Civil War Eyewitnesses: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles, 1986-1996 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).

Of the single-volume syntheses, James McPherson's classic Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) stands out for its blend of military and political history written in graceful prose. A major examination of strategy and operations within a broader political context is Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). David J. Eicher's The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001) is an encyclopedic survey that covers virtually all major and minor engagements. Many Civil War buffs and students of the era were first attracted to the subject by reading Bruce Catton's beautiful and evocative Centennial History of the Civil War (3 vols.; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961-65) or novelist Shelby Foote's lyrical three-volume study, The Civil War: A Narrative (New York: Random House, 1958-1974). A more scholarly but still readable survey of the Civil War era, 1847-1865 is Allan Nevins' eight-volume masterwork The Ordeal of the Union (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1947-1971).

Military Strategy

The historical debates over military strategy have been endless. The best overview of the northern side of the story with an emphasis on explaining why most Civil War campaigns were so indecisive is Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983). A companion (and more controversial) volume on the Confederacy but one that emphasizes internal divisions more than military strategy is Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986). A spirited response that argues for the strength of both soldier and civilian commitment to the Confederate nation and defends Robert E. Lee's strategic approach as best suited for both public expectations and the military situation is Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). Gallagher's volume has in turned provoked a rejoinder from William W. Freehling, who in The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) maintains that border-state whites and southern blacks tipped the balance against the Confederacy. For the broader context in the study of military operations on each side the respective volumes in the New American Nation Series remain the standard works: Phillip Shaw Paludan, A People's Contest: The Union and the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) and Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

General Studies

The study of the Federals naturally begins with the commander-in-chief. An excellent starting point is T. Harry Williams' provocative defense of Abraham Lincoln as a military strategist in Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952). For a very detailed and opinionated though sadly unfinished study of Lincoln's search for competent army commanders, see Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General: A Military Study of the Civil War (5 vols.; New York: Macmillan, 1949-1959). New assessments of Lincoln's relationships with five of the most important Union generals are explored in Gabor Boritt, ed., Lincoln's Generals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). The now standard single-volume work on Lincoln's presidency, Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), deftly analyzes the political context for the administration's military policies. The controversial story of congressional "interference" in military affairs receives well-researched and judicious treatment in Bruce Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder: The Committee on the Conduct of the War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998). The commander-in-chief becomes "Father Abraham" in William C. Davis's fine account of Lincoln and the common soldier, Lincoln's Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation (New York: Free Press, 1999).

The evolution of Federal military policy toward southern civilians has attracted three first-rate historians. On the transition from a "conciliatory" approach to "hard war," see Mark Grimsley's original and provocative analysis in The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). The effects of these policies and the southern civilian response are the subject of Stephen V. Ash, When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Michael Fellman's excellent book, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) describes and analyzes the bitter and violent conflicts in that state.

The Confederate commander-in-chief has long attracted biographical interest with decidedly mixed results. A work that is both sympathetic and comprehensive is William J. Cooper, Jr., Jefferson Davis, American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000). A more critical approach that focuses on the Civil War period and probes the Confederate president's character flaws while acknowledging his virtues is William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (New York: HarperCollins, 1991). Following the model set by T. Harry Williams, Steven E. Woodworth focuses on the relationships between Jefferson Davis and his generals in both theaters of the war. He criticizes both Davis and his generals for their failures to work together and their inability to develop a consensus on strategy in Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990) and Davis and Lee at War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).

How the war was fought has been the subject of several sweeping works. Edward Hagerman's The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) offers invaluable information and insights about military organization, transportation, communication, and fortification. For the story of military intelligence based on neglected sources, see Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Intelligence in the Civil War (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996) and William B. Feis, Grant's Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to the Appomattox (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002). That the rifled musket transformed tactics has long seemed self-evident, but Paddy Griffith raises questions on this score (not always persuasively) and offers cogent assessments of both sides' use of infantry, artillery, cavalry and fortifications in Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). The influence of West Point training and Mexican War experience along with the impact of the Civil War's greater firepower are well covered in Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics on the Southern Heritage . Their assertion that Confederates (in part because of their Celtic heritage) bled themselves to death in foolish front assaults has proved far more controversial than their astute tactical analysis. Many of the discussions on strategy and tactics by modern historians echo earlier assessments by European commentators whose important work is perceptively interpreted in Jay Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac (3 vols.; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951-53) remains the best work on that subject-and one that has appealed strongly to several generations of readers. In an unfailingly interesting and thought-provoking study, Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), Michael C. C. Adams argues that until Ulysses S. Grant came east, the Confederates largely enjoyed psychological ascendancy over Federal generals and soldiers alike. Union armies in the West have suffered from considerable neglect. A recent book that fills an important gap for the early phases of the war is Gerald J. Prokopowicz, All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio, 1861-1862 (Chapel Hill: University of the North Carolina Press, 2001). In The Union Cavalry in the Civil War (3 vols.; Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1979-1985), Stephen Starr presents a very detailed and solid treatment of that arm of service in all theaters.

The literature on the main Confederates armies is enormous. For the Army of Northern Virginia, the indispensable starting point is the prodigiously researched, fair-minded, and well-written, Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants (3 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942-1944). More recently, Joseph L. Harsh offers a detailed defense of Lee's early strategic thinking in Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862 (Kent, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 1998) and Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 (Kent, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 1999). In two well researched and provocative volumes, Thomas Lawrence Connelly almost single-handedly revived interest in the ill-fated Army of Tennessee: Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967); Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971). For an interesting assessment of the connection between the two armies and the tug of war over Confederate strategy, see Thomas Lawrence Connelly and Archer Jones, The Politics of Command: Factions and Ideas in Confederate Strategy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973). Richard McMurry offers an insightful and trenchant analysis of the relative importance of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee in Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Campaigns and Battles

Campaign and battle studies have long been staples of Civil War history. Most focus on strategy, tactics, and personalities with some attention to political context, but more recently historians have taken a more expansive approach. Ironically the first great battle, and one of the more interesting ones, has attracted relatively little attention except for William C. Davis's broadly researched and quite readable study, Battle at Bull Run: A History of First Major Campaign of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1977). The early struggle for Missouri is an often neglected subject, but William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher, III's Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil and the Men Who Fought It (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) does justice to an important engagement while paying careful attention to the men who fought there and their communities. William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess present a model campaign study based on wide research and an intimate knowledge of the ground in Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Benjamin Franklin Cooling persuasively argues for the strategic significance of western theater river warfare in Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987). A standard and very detailed tactical study of another critical defeat for the Confederates is Wiley Sword, Shiloh: Bloody April (New York: William Morrow, 1974). More accessible for general readers and at the same time provocative on the various controversies surrounding the engagement is Larry J. Daniel, Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

The eastern campaigns, especially those fought by Robert E. Lee, are perennial historical favorites. The always enlightening and readable Stephen Sears's To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992), is the best treatment of that critical campaign. For a more recent and solid tactical study, see Brian K. Burton, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001). No one writes livelier and more opinionated assessments of men and tactics than Robert K. Krick. Especially notable are his works on Stonewall Jackson's campaigns: Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990) and Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic (New York: William Morrow, 1996). For a more general treatment of Jackson's valley campaign, see Robert G. Tanner, Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862 (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1996).

There are three superb studies of important eastern theater campaigns. Though often neglected by historians, the second Battle of Bull Run finally receives its deserved attention in John J. Hennessy's masterful, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993). Hennessey tells a complex tale with remarkable lucidity and clarity. Stephen Sears's excellent Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983) showed how deep research, just the right combination of analysis and detail, and steady attention to a campaign's political context could produce a model campaign book. Sears later wrote an equally valuable study of Stonewall Jackson's final campaign: Chancellorsville (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

More traditional and well-done campaign studies have continued to appear even as some historians have tried to expand the scope of such work. For an example of the former, see Francis Augustin O'Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003) and for an example of the latter, see George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A fine brief study that fully explains the importance of a vital campaign in a broad context is James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

One enters the deep thicket of seemingly endless studies of Gettysburg with some trepidation. The standard single-volume account remains Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), a wonderfully evenhanded book that covers the major controversies and a host of other important topics. Stephen Sears, Gettysburg (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), however, will likely supplant Coddington for most general readers. For students of the battle who want even more detail from a historian thoroughly familiar with the ground and who weighs evidence carefully, see Harry W. Pfanz's three superb studies, Gettysburg—The First Day (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), Gettysburg: The Second Day (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), and Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg-Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). The best modern study of Pickett's charge, based on extensive research that carefully analyzes the command decisions and tactical intricacies, is Earl J. Hess, Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). Carol Reardon explores the meaning of this most famous assault of the Civil War for both participants and Americans generally in Pickett's Charge in History and Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). In Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Gary Wills argues that Lincoln used Gettysburg and his opportunity to speak at the cemetery dedication to essentially redefine the American experiment.

The titanic struggles between Grant and Lee have always attracted much historical and popular interest. Gordon Rhea is currently writing a monumental but very readable study of Grant's overland campaign that is now up to four volumes: The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994); The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997); To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000); Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002). Each of these books is characterized by impressive research, carefully rendered though sometimes controversial judgments, and lucid prose. See also the meticulous tactical study by William D. Matter, If It Takes All Summer: The Battles of Spotsylvania (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). There are no equivalent volumes for the Petersburg campaign, but Noah Andre Trudeau's The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991) is a well-written overview. Two studies on smaller pieces of the larger picture stand out. For incredible research and minute detail on the desperate struggle for Petersburg in the fall of 1864, see Richard J. Sommers, Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg (New York: Doubleday: 1981). For a lively blend of tactical analysis and insight on the common soldier experience during the last days of the campaign, consult A. Wilson Greene, Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign (Mason City, Iowa: Savas Publishing Company, 2000). William Marvel's Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) is a thorough reexamination of the final campaign in Virginia that corrects several Lost Cause myths.

The western theater has generated far fewer campaign studies but has also showcased differences between newer and more traditional approaches. Kenneth W. Noe's wide-ranging account, Perryville: The Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001) deals with complex geographical details and command problems of a badly neglected campaign. Unlike most such books, this one pays attention to the medical aspects of the campaign, veterans' later lives, and how the battlefield was preserved and the battle interpreted. For a minutely detailed account of the numerous engagements, large and small, that made up the Vicksburg campaign, see Edwin Cole Bearss, The Campaign for Vicksburg (3 vols. Dayton, Oh.: Morningside, 1985-86). A brief and thoroughly researched account of an often neglected campaign that completed Federal capture of the Mississippi River line is Lawrence Lee Hewitt, Port Hudson: Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987). There is much fresh material in Arthur W. Bergeron's well written study of the struggle for control of a key port city: Confederate Mobile (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991). Three books by Peter Cozzens have quickly become standard accounts of important and complex engagements in Tennessee and Georgia: No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). In many ways the best study of any western theater campaign is Albert Castel, Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1992). Unconventional in both style and interpretation, Castel's book is a fine read filled with provocative revisions of conventional wisdom on William T. Sherman and many other subjects.

Sherman's march to the Sea and his campaigns in the Carolinas have received considerable but not especially distinguished treatment. A notable exception is Lee Kennett's find blending of military and social history in Marching Through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman's Campaign (New York HarperCollins, 1995).

The University of Nebraska Press's shorter and synthetic treatments in the "Great Campaigns of the Civil War Series" provide solid, compact, and interpretative studies. Gary W. Gallagher's "Military Campaigns of the Civil War" series published by the University of North Carolina presents well-conceived essay collections containing much original scholarship on important eastern theater campaigns.


There are innumerable biographies of military leaders, but prominent Union officers have received much less attention than their Confederate counterparts. On Ulysses S. Grant, two volumes by Bruce Catton are still well worth reading: Grant Moves South (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960); Grant Takes Command (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968). Brooks D. Simpson cuts through a morass of myths and misconceptions in the first volume of what promises to become the standard biography: Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865 . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000). On William T. Sherman, the best biography is John Marszalek's fair-minded and thoroughly researched account whose subtitle well describes a persistent theme in the general's life: Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order (New York: Free Press, 1993). For a much darker psychological portrait, see Michael Fellman, Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (New York: Random House, 1995). Stephen Sears manages to write a judicious biography of one of the war's most controversial generals in George B. McCellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1988). Less important, unsuccessful Federal commanders have also attracted attention. Some biographers such as Stephen D. Engle sympathetically analyze the reasons for their subject's failures without minimizing their weaknesses: Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1999). Others biographers such as William Marvel revel in the task of historical revisionism and clearly try to refurbish their subject's tarnished reputations: Burnside (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Given the always popular Gettysburg theme, many readers will enjoy Alice Rains Trulock's solidly researched and readable biography of the hero of Little Round Top: In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

It sometimes appears that almost every Confederate general officer, no matter how obscure, has a biographer. Fortunately in this mass of literature there are several gems. The dashing and colorful P. G. T. Beauregard became the Confederacy's first notable military hero. Although acknowledging Beauregard's abilities, T. Harry Williams also probes the general's touchy egotism and penchant for elaborate and impractical strategic plans in P. G. T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1954). Albert Sidney Johnston's death at Shiloh would always leave an assessment of his potential as an army commander open to speculation, Charles P. Roland's long standard biography, Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), remains indispensable for students of the war's western theater. Unlike Beauregard and Johnston, Braxton Bragg never received much popular acclaim, and his biographers mostly prob his flaws as a commander, tactician, and human being. Most notably, see Grady McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. Vol. 1: Field Command (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969) and Judith Lee Hallock, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. Vol. 2 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991). If historians have been critical of Bragg, they have sometimes seen Patrick Cleburne as a possible savior of Confederate military fortunes in the West. A fine study that fully assesses Cleburne's qualities as a field general without exaggerating his potential for higher command is Craig L. Symonds, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997). For a student of the Civil War, it is hard to be neutral on Joseph E. Johnston, but Craig L. Symonds judiciously explores the general's abilities and limitations in Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (New York: Norton, 1992). Although much has been written on Nathan Bedford Forrest and his campaigns, the only full account that gives balanced attention to the general's entire life is Brian Steel Wills, A Battle from the State: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

With apologies to the author of Ecclesiastes, we may safely say that in the making of books on Robert E. Lee, there is no end in sight. For well over half a century, Lee biographers have worked under the shadow of Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental R. E. Lee: A Biography . (4 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934-1935). Despite the work's worshipful tone, it is a well-researched and beautifully written account of Lee's entire life. The best single-volume biography that combines insight into Lee the man and Lee the soldier is Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995). Two books that Lee admirers most like to hate but nevertheless contain worthwhile arguments and insights are Thomas Lawrence Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) and Alan T. Nolan, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Among the many biographies of Lee's most successful lieutenant, James I. Robertson's Jr. sensitive and perceptive, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: Macmillan, 1997) is the best. A solid and sympathetic biography of Lee's most controversial lieutenant is Jeffry D. Wert, James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993). One of the finest biographies of any corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia is Donald C. Pfanz, Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). For a well-done biography of another corps commander, who though a fearsome fighter was an elusive man, see James I. Robertson, Jr., General A. P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior (New York: Random House, 1987). Emory Thomas offers one of the few biographies of Lee's dashing cavalry commander that is not saturated with Lost Cause romanticism in Bold Dragoon: The Life of J. E. B. Stuart (New York: Harper and Row, 1986).

Soldiers and Sailors

Bell Irvin Wiley read countless Civil War diaries and letters in fashioning his path-breaking studies of the common soldier, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943) and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952). Wiley presents a social history of the soldier in camp and battle, but in recent decades historians have increasingly studied the values and motivations of the common soldiers. Gerald F. Linderman's Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1987) argues for both centrality of courage to the soldier experience and for the importance of disillusionment among veterans of camp and battlefield. In contrast to Linderman, James M. McPherson emphasizes both the central role of ideology and the persistent values of the common soldier in two important books: What They Fought For, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994) and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Reid Mitchell stresses basic similarities between northern and southern soldiers as well as the importance of demonizing enemies in Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Experiences (New York: Viking, 1988). Mitchell extends these insights and explores the connections between soldiers and their communities in The Vacant Chair: The North Soldier Leaves Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Earl J. Hess's book, The Union Solder in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), recaptures the combat experience by looking at the various ways in which soldiers tried to describe the indescribable. A highly original work that links cultural values to the war's extreme violence is Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). For a wide-ranging study of an elusive but important subject, see Eric T. Dean, Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

There are two pioneering works that have studied the role and contribution of African-American troops to Union victory: Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Army: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: Longmans Green, 1956) and Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: Free Press, 1990). In Lincoln's Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992), Richard Nelson Current resurrects the nearly forgotten story of some 100,000 white southerners who fought for the Union.
Historians have also studied the experiences of common soldiers in particular campaigns and armies. The best of these studies include Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops and the Carolinas Campaigns (New York: New York University Press, 1986); Larry J. Daniel, Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: a Portrait of Life in the Confederate Army (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); and J. Tracy Power, Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Prisoners of war became a headache for both sides. A dated but still standard overview of the subject is William B. Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1930). A comprehensive, recent survey is Lonnie R Speer, Portals of Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1997). A beautifully written account that shatters many myths about one of the most notorious prison camps is William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

On naval warfare a popular narrative history that relies largely on published sources is Virgil Carrington Jones, The Civil War at Sea (3 vols.; New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960-62). By emphasizing how many ships were able to run the Union blockade, historians have often ignored the fall-off in southern trade, but there are nevertheless several standard operational histories. For a well-researched account of blockade running that argues for its great importance to the Confederate economy, see Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running during the Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988). Robert M. Browning, Jr., carefully weighs the successes and failures of Union blockading squadrons in From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993) and Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (Washington: Brassey's, 2002). The only work to systematically treat joint Army-Navy operations is a highly interpretive study by Rowena Reed, Combined Operations in the Civil War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1978).

An early but still useful history of the Confederate navy is J. Thomas Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy (New York: Rogers and Sherwood, 1887). A new survey that carefully documents (and sometimes exaggerates) the achievements of Rebels afloat is Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996). Two monographs by William N. Still, Jr. explore the practical obstacles and accomplishments of Confederate shipbuilding: Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971); Confederate Shipbuilding (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969). For a solid account of Confederate technological innovation, see Milton F. Perry, Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965). For a fine account that interweaves the story of two famous ships with an evocative account of life at sea, see William Marvel, The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).


The outpouring of literature on the Civil War ebbs and flows, but it is seldom a trickle because the popular appetite remains strong. Many readers prefer familiar stories told in familiar ways, but new approaches also occasionally attract interest. The whole field always seems to be teetering between exhaustion and renewal; much of the work remains stuck in familiar ruts and new work sometimes proves disappointing. But the sources are so extensive, rich, and varied, the period so filled with tension, drama, and the unexpected, that the promise of Civil War history always offers a glimmering hope of exciting new work to come.

George C. Rable

National Park Service


American Civil War Exhibits
Civil War Summary