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The U.S. Civil War» Forums » General

Subject: Background reading? rss

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Will Pearson
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OK, so as a scientist/engineer/mathematician who missed several years of school I basically have no background in history, everything I've learned has either been through my own reading or spending time with veterans. The big gap I have is with the ACW (and caplock era in general, but that's for another time).

I picked this up because I'm a learn-by-doing sort of guy, and I prefer operational/strategic games anyway. Tablespace is booked up for at least a week while I finish off Gathering Storm so I'm looking for something to read to bone up on the War before I start.

I know there's an embarrassment of riches with regards to material, but as someone with a decent grasp of military history but zero knowledge of the situation, either militarily or politically I don't know where to start. I've heard a lot about Burn's documentary but I'm retarded; I can only process audio or visual, not both at once.

One recommendation I've had is Catton & McPherson's "American Heritage History of the Civil War", but I was wondering what else was available for a decent primer at the level the game covers?

Cheers.
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Claudio
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James Mcphersons one volume history Battle Cry of Freedom is excellent. It covers context (300 pages before the first shot is fired), strategy, situations for big operations and battles. And very compellingly written. At c. 1000 pages, it doesn't outstay its welcome.
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Christina Kahrl
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Definitely a +1 on McPherson. Catt on is also fun, but if you had to have just one treatment of the topic, you want McPherson.
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Kris Hall
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Yes, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson is the single vest one-volume study of the war. It is a door-stopper of a book, but you’ll learn the politics, the military history, even the economics of the war.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is maybe the best one-volume book on Lincoln and his cabinet.

Shelby Foote has a great three-volume history of the war, and he writes like a novelist.

With Malice Toward None by Stephen Oates is an older, shorter biography of Lincoln and you can pick it up cheap on Amazon.

The Fiery Trial is an award-winning look at Lincoln and slavery by Eric Foner.

General Lee’s Army by Joseph Glatthaar is a good look at the army of Northern Virginia.

The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry Wert looks at the Army of the Potomac.

The Killer Angels
by Michael Shaara is still a classic novel of the Battle of Gettysburg.
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POUM
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claudio212 wrote:
James Mcphersons one volume history Battle Cry of Freedom is excellent. It covers context (300 pages before the first shot is fired), strategy, situations for big operations and battles. And very compellingly written. At c. 1000 pages, it doesn't outstay its welcome.


Agree. Reading it now as I play.
 
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Phil C
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A fellow Midlander!

Shelby Foote's 3 volume set is outstanding, covering the entirity of the war. Beautifully written, spell binding. I'm still on volume one (each is around 1000 pages) and it's great. So glad I paid for the hardback set off Amazon.

Also fascinating to see the strategic decisions and mistakes made and how often they actually aligned with my current PBeM campaign.
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Nick Wade
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'Fateful Lightning' by Allen C. Guelzo is excellent, similar to McPherson's in scope.
 
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Paulo Costa
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I can't praise enough Shelby Foote's 3 volume history of the war.
You'll be engaged from the first to the last page.
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Matt D
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VPaulus wrote:
I can't praise enough Shelby Foote's 3 volume history of the war.
You'll be engaged from the first to the last page.

I liked Shelby Foote's the best as well.
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Paul Smith
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Burning Monkey wrote:
VPaulus wrote:
I can't praise enough Shelby Foote's 3 volume history of the war.
You'll be engaged from the first to the last page.

I liked Shelby Foote's the best as well.


Another vote for Shelby Foote's three volume, billion page epic from me.
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Paul Bradshaw
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I am well read in this particular period of American history and would echo the shouts on Battle Cry of Freedom and Shelby Foote's trilogy. The former is an academically authorative account that covers many wide ranging facets of the war, whilst the latter reads like a gripping novel (and I mean that as an absolute compliment to Foote's efforts). As previously mentioned each of Foote's volumes is a bout a 1000 pages long, but I recall steaming through all three as the style, content and narrative just demanded that you do so. Simply could not put them down.

On a slightly different note I would also recommend Ken Burns excellent six disk boxset documentary 'The Civil War'. There are nine individual episodes that cover about eleven hours worth of viewing, all of which weave a rich tapestry by drawing on the works of academics (Foote was also a major contributor to this project and is interviewed frequently in the episodes) and the memoirs of those that lived through those times. Another sterling effort that is not likely to be topped in it's field.
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Phil C
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For those interested, the outstanding Burns documentary series is currently on Netflix too (in the UK at least, I know it can vary from region to region).
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POUM
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codelish wrote:
For those interested, the outstanding Burns documentary series is currently on Netflix too (in the UK at least, I know it can vary from region to region).


That one is Mint. Also some documentary's on you tube are good.
 
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Thomas Juliano
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I agree that McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is *the* place to start.

I'm surprised Hattaway & Jones How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War hasn't been listed yet. I think it gives a great description of the operational-level considerations that this board game simulates.
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Will Pearson
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Went with Battle Cry of Freedom in the end, already a couple of chapters in, it's a surprisingly quick read.
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Wendell
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tjuliano wrote:
I'm surprised Hattaway & Jones How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War hasn't been listed yet. I think it gives a great description of the operational-level considerations that this board game simulates.


Just googled it, sounds interesting - thanks for the recommendation.
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Jim Marshall
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Shelby Foote for me for print, Burns for video.

Foote (now sadly deceased) appears as a frequent commentator in the Burns videos, in which he is by turns as erudite, witty, deadpan and engaging as he is in his books. After watching Burns' series, you can almost imagine Foote's lilting, southern drawl voice when reading his books...
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Marco
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thank you for all the recommendations in this thread.
I own FtP and saw some docus on the civial war already, but I think its time to read some more about it, so I ordered James M. McPherson masterpiece
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Tom Willcockson
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I dont know what it is, I have picked up McPherson's one volume several times and I can just never seem to get through it, while I just blaze through Foote's three volumes every time I pick them up. Going through them for the third time now. I think it is Foote's writing style which I find much more compelling although I also think McPherson's work lacks a certain level of detail. Now that is not a criticism and of course that is what you are going to get from a single volume as opposed to a three volume set, but for me personally I think that is why I keep coming back to Foote.

Foote is a little pro-southern biased which isn't that big a deal except when he gets into all the nicknames for the southern generals but it certainly doesn't detract from his work which is just first rate. Very enjoyable reading. When my old paperback version finally gave out I ordered a used hardback set from the original 1950s printing which is what I am reading now. Foote's epic is the perfect companion to TUSCW in my opinion along with Crucibal of War for Wilderness War and A World at Arms for A World at War.

The only other standout series of books for me on the ACW are Stephen Sears books, landscape turned Red etc.
 
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Rich James
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I'm reading through Foote's 3 volume set now (nearing the end of Vol 2.) and will echo that it is an enjoyable and very informative read. I don't particularly see a pro-South bias though. I think he is pretty fair when giving praise and criticism to both sides.
 
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Tom Willcockson
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No I definitely think Foote is fair to both sides and bias is probably too strong a word. He is just more generous with detail for the southern generals and leadership and gives them more personality which is understandable since he was from the South.
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Gabriel Conroy
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MacPherson's book is the best, in my view. I have also enjoyed Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 by Steven Woodworth, which focuses on the western theatre, and primarily from the Union perspective, but in some ways that is where the war was won. One can argue the big battles in the east would have been more important had one side broken through. However since they didn't, I think the North's advances in the west contributed to the sense of inevitable defeat for the South and provided crucial morale boosts for the North at key moments, preventing a political collapse for Lincoln's administration.
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Don Matcheck
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McPherson is best overall single source...takes a while to get to the war but is a great education. Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy is also extremely excellent but focuses more on the eastern theater. Catton's a Stillness at Appomatox (Pulitzer Winner) picks up in 1864 but is so well written and captivating it's hard to put down.

The eastern battles are more well known and written about but I'll tell you this game sure gave me an appreciation for the western theater I never had (as well as a much, much better understanding of the whole war). I bought Forest Gump author Winston Groom's book about Shiloh recently to try to get some western theater background...it's pretty good.
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Don Matcheck
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I reached this same conclusion about the importance of the western theater but it was this game that led me to it.
 
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Øivind Karlsrud
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Bjørkelangen
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I'm also one of those who like Shelby Foote's trilogy, but I think it is more useful for someone who plays tactical/operational level ACW games. It is longer than MCPherson's book and has more focus on military matters. Even though it is longer than McPherson's book, it also gets to the war sooner (about 100 page, IIRC). All this means that Foote's trilogy have quite detailed accounts of the battles. Gettysburg alone is about 150 pages, I think, and those pages have quite a lot of text. In a pocket book edition, those 150 pages could easily be 200-300 pages, so Foote's account of Gettysburg could be a book by itself.

The downside of Foote's trilogy is that he doesn't use footnotes, for those who would like to check his sources.
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