A Few Suggestions on the Civil War Reading List

One of my favorite Civil War books is “Don’t Know Much About the Civil War” by Davis. I also enjoy Bruce Catton’s books on the war between the North and the South. Abraham Lincoln was probably one of the least prepared Presidents and he took over the war. He had very little experience, but he said something like “I walk forward slowly, but I never walk back.” I heard of that one in his talks from 1862. I think it says a lot about the man.

One of my favorite people writing about the Civil War is Bruce Catton. He is a good writer, he intersperses real conversations into his writing, and he knows the acts of the generals and the President. He has written a number of books on the Civil War. He is a better writer than I am, and he is better than even Lowell’s Dick Howe, Jr. So I would suggest buying his books at used book stores. That is mostly where he is now sold.

Catton describes people at what is often the most important period of their lives. If he was going to describe Lowell’s Ladd and Whitney, he would hone in on their one great contribution, their deaths and burial in Lowell, Massachusetts. They were the first two soldiers killed in the war. Their legend is well-known and well-written. Hundreds of thousands of others would die, but they were the first two to do it. And, therefore, they are good targets for Catton.

Generals were one of Catton’s favorite targets. But if he missed some smaller events he would have forgotten why he was writing about the Civil War in the first place. When Lincoln walked to Jefferson Davis’ house when the North had occupied Richmond, he bowed to a crying African-American in a moment that defied the entire momentum of the war, and continued walking forward, not back. “The President removed his own hat and bowed in silence. It was a bow which upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries of slavery.” (Don’t Know Much About the Civil War by Kenneth C. Davis.)

Obviously, Kenneth C. Davis knew something about the war. “So ended the Civil War,” he observed. It was an incredible moment. The President was reacting to an event that could have seen him killed on the spot but he handled it. He was eventually killed but not until the war had ceased.

There is one thing I want to say that no one else has said, to my knowledge. This Coronovirus Pandemic has happened because, without it, there would have been a civil war. With it, there are too many deaths, too few acts of kindness. That is my opinion and I am going to stick to it. I mentioned it to a friend of mine, who is the direct opposite of everything I am; and he said, “Of course, you are right.” That made me feel good.

So back to the real Civil War. There is an awful lot of detail in the many books written about that time period. Catton has at least, by my count, five books on the subject. Some were on Abraham Lincoln, and I have read Carl Sandburg’s “The Prairie Years.” It is the hardest book I have ever read. I have read many on the Civil War but that one was on Lincoln, and he was not an easy man to discern. Slavery was just one subject he discussed, he also talked about secession, some thoughts on death, and other thoughts that were uniquely his own.

There is currently a strong effort to get rid of statues of those people who supported, or appeared to support, slavery and secession. We should allow those statues to stand. The men who lived during those times were very strong individuals whose statues capture their humanity. Robert E. Lee was an incredible commander who worried more about how to find socks for his men than worried about wins or losses on the battlefield. (The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee by Clifford Dowdey, published by the Virginia Civil War Commission; Bramhall House: New York 1865)

There are statues throughout the South of some good, and some evil, generals in the War Between the States. I personally do not care for Nathan Bedford Forrest, who started the Klu Klux Klan, with all of its sins. He was, I believe, an evil man. Others were not so bad. Baseball founder Abner Doubleday was an officer at Fort Sumter on the Union side, and at Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, he was only famous for one day, July 1, 1863. But baseball made him into his own character on the “Field of Dreams.” Not a movie character, but a character in the background.

Winfield Scott, the overweight head of the first Army of the Republic, and George McClellan, the well-loved commander of the same army, were basically incompetent, not like the members of the Confederate Army. Those generals taught our generals how to be successful by keeping them incompetent for three years. Lincoln was comparing himself to a soldier who could not stay on their horse crossing a stream. Only with the advent of General Grant and General William Techumseh Sherman succeeded in teaching our men how to fight. It would be good to make a statue of one of the commanders at Gettysburg and keep him on his horse. General Lee was depicted at his real height and his horse, Traveler, was the size of the horse buried next to Lee. Yes, Lee had his favorite horse buried next to him. That is human.

Lincoln thought, with limited military training, that Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was too mild. None of us hold Lincoln responsible for turning over a plan that would have cut the southern tier in half early in the war. Lincoln is allowed to make his mistakes. On April 19, 1861, Lincoln implemented the plan. He was right. It was too mild and did not work.

First things first. This should not be ignored, the North did not start the war. The South did that. And, slavery was a Southern institution. There are many who say that the North was as mean to their workers as were the owners of the slaves. But how do we excuse Thomas Jefferson’s multi-family transgressions and multiple children while he was President. Not after he retired. Ultimately, we cannot excuse it. The “Boston Globe” a few years back reported that Jefferson had two families in or around Kentucky. One was named Jefferson and was white, and one was named Jefferson and was black. They could not test Jefferson because he was President. They tested his brother for DNA. They found that Jefferson’s black family was closer to Jefferson than his white descendants. Actually, those who knew of the slave known as Elizabeth knew that Jefferson kept his wife, who was a slave by that name.

She was going back to the states as a slave when a French man told her that she could go back as a slave or stay in France, which did not have slavery, as a free woman. She opted to go back as Jefferson’s slave, which shows how strong their love was. She gave up personal freedom for him. She had six children by Jefferson. She negotiated with him that her children would be free upon Jefferson’s death. To be fair, Jefferson lived a long time, dying fifty years after the Declaration of Independence on the same day that his friend, John Adams, died. The rest of his slaves were sold before he died. It is said that Jefferson loved Elizabeth because she was the half-sister to Jefferson’s late wife. That cannot be necessarily stated. It turns out that slightly similar color matching her sister’s hair and it is said that the shade of black skin was very slight. In short, it is said that she looked like her late sister and Jefferson fell in love with her.

Jefferson invented ice cream. He was a superb inventor, especially with wood. He was probably one of the most intelligent Presidents and, on the night before his inauguration, John Kennedy looked across the limousine and said to a friend that Jefferson’s speech was better than his. It was hard to believe but it was what he said. Jefferson made up for his insecurities by exercising his brilliance. We should probably not take down a President’s statue because they were slaveowners, but if we were going to, Jefferson would be a logical person. He was not, by today’s standards, a hero. But in a life of slavery, he manages. He sent his children of Elizabeth’s to freedom. Most of his slave children were with him until his death, long before they chose to leave. He did not keep them by his side throughout his life. I think he would have been for Elizabeth’s choice.

So, that is Thomas Jefferson, warts and all. He was appointed War Governor of Virginia during the Revolution. He made a study of running away from the British during his time as War Governor. Now, it would have been preferable to our history if Jefferson’s Vice President had not murdered Alexander Hamilton. We literally paid for that mistake for over one hundred years. Hamilton was a much better financier than Jefferson was President. That is possibly excepting the Lewis and Clark incident. George Washington excelled in pointing out that slavery was a continuation of genteel civilization. Washington excused his slavery practice by citing this “fact.”

So, I have a few other facts to discuss. There is a lot of wrong right now. Black men are getting strangled by white policemen. George Floyd will be remembered possibly forever. And, he deserves it.

Thinking about civil rights is a good thing too. Spend some time thinking about your great-great-great-great grandfather who was either a slave or indentured servant. They were deprived of their right to make money. Think about that and see what that means to you. My greatgrandfather was an indentured servant and could not make a free life for himself for nineteen years running. That was strange to me and made me question my family history. Eventually, it had a bearing on my knowledge of slavery. African Americans and Irishmen were bound to a lack of freedom. At least the Irish had the opportunity to become free. The African American had to fight for it.

One thought on “A Few Suggestions on the Civil War Reading List

  1. C R Krieger

    So, where are those Used Book Stores? I do miss Acres and Acres of Books, but that was out on The Coast.

    We miss the fact that Robert E Lee, like many before the Civil War, believed their prime loyalty was to their State and the Federal Government came second. We see that as strange. But many back then didn’t.

    When I was learning history in college a couple of my professors claimed that US Grant had an illicit translation of Dead Carl’s On War in his saddle bags. Could have been.

    Regards — Cliff

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