A Few of My Favourite Things

I responded to a Reddit user’s call for Civil War book suggestions, and it occurred to me that – in this time of gift buying and giving – I could cross post my list here. In no particular order, I give you:

* Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering deals with the mass death and the effect it had on grief, grieving, burial and memory on America

* Bell Irvin Wiley’s amazing two-part Billy Yank and Johnny Reb take a look at the life and living conditions of the average soldier. Hardtack and Coffee is a similar study.

* I admit, I haven’t read Race and Reunion yet, but I’ve listened to many of David Blight’s lectures on the Civil War in American memory and they are always fascinating. If ever I can find another job this one’s at the top of my wish list.

* Been in the Storm So Long was a book assigned in university that I barrelled through without waiting to find out which chapters were being covered. It investigates the aftermath of slavery in an admittedly depressing though very informative history.

* Team of Rivals deserves every award it racked up. It’s history, biography, and a non-fiction drama all rolled into one.

* Lincoln’s Men is one of my favourite biographies, and it’s a two-fer, though admittedly John Hay – with his extensive c.v. and long life, gets more pages than his friend John Nicolay. If you’ve ever read a touching anecdote about Lincoln in the White House, it was probably recounted by his secretaries. These are fun men to spend time with, and I can see why Lincoln was so endeared to them.

* Co. Aytch was featured in the Ken Burns series, and for good reason. It’s a quick read and really, really entertaining. Sam Watkins had some amazing experiences and tells them with both good humour and poetic sadness.

* I’ve read a few books by Burke Davis and they are always good reads. Not so thin as to be flimsy but definitely a much speedier read than the “heavy artillery” of Shelby Foote or Jim McPherson’s weighty tomes.

* Having said that, the Shelby Foote Narratives are worth the effort it takes to plow through them. It took me longer to read than the war took to fight, but his writing is wonderful. (Be warned: If you’re reading these with the intention of using them as research Foote’s works will not be accepted as historical references, as I learned the hard way in university!)

* Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is both a depressing look at life as a slave woman and an empowering realisation that slave women could sometimes use their own skill, cunning and talent to escape and make something of themselves. (See also: Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth)

* Mary Chesnut’s Diary served as one of the “voices” in the Ken Burns series. She was a well to do slaveowning society lady from South Carolina, and had access to the Confederate top brass during the war. (Note that her original diary is public domain but the C Vann Woodward edition is considered definitive.)

* Women are also central to the narrative in When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg. It’s a really eyeopening account of what was left behind after the armies moved on. Much as I enjoy reading about the war, military actions don’t interest me as much as the social effects and changes those battles wrought. There are a lot of really fascinating angles explored in this “over-published” historical event.

Lots and lots of excellent books out there. I wish you much happy reading for 2017!

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