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Posted at 9:26 AM ET, 11/30/2010

Gary Gallagher: What are the best new Civil War books?

By Gary Gallagher

Professor of history at the University of Virginia

Gallagher

The Civil War's sesquicentennial will yield a bonanza for readers. Many titles will offer testimony from people who experienced the conflict--in the form of wartime diaries and letters, as well as retrospective accounts that highlight how participants chose to frame the conflict for subsequent generations. Any serious reader should leaven their exploration of books by historians with at least a few firsthand accounts. Nothing better conveys a sense of the ways in which morale ebbed and flowed, of the contingent nature of politics and military affairs, and of the great social upheavals of the time.

Two recent titles underscore the value of accounts by military officers. "The Bravest of the Brave: The Correspondence of Stephen Dodson Ramseur," edited by George G. Kundahl, presents letters from a North Carolinian who distinguished himself in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Just twenty-seven years old when mortally wounded at the battle of Cedar Creek, Ramseur had achieved the rank of major general and led an infantry division. His letters illuminate a culture of command in Robert E. Lee's army that rewarded aggressive officers who stressed discipline and looked after their soldiers' well being. The correspondence also features descriptions of battles, reveals how Ramseur's antebellum slave holding identity evolved into ardent Confederate nationalism, and traces the development of a tender relationship with his cousin, and later wife, Ellen Richmond. The widespread Confederate belief in Lee stands out. After William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta in September 1864, Ramseur assured Ellen that, "it will still be all right as long as Gen'l. Lee (God bless our old Hero!) and his glorious army continue to baffle the tremendous efforts made to capture Richmond and overrun Virginia."

George B. McClellan figured far more prominently in the war than Ramseur and always has stood out among the more controversial Union generals. Thomas W. Cutrer's "The Mexican War Diary and Correspondence of George B. McClellan," provides fascinating insights into McClellan's development as a soldier. Second in the West Point class of 1846, McClellan served on Winfield Scott's staff in Mexico and won brevet promotions for outstanding performances at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. His writings show an obviously intelligent and capable officer who was quick to blame others for his own failures, eager to take the fullest credit for any successes, and given to cold dismissal of less gifted comrades. These qualities, good and bad, reappeared during the Civil War at the Seven Days and Antietam and in dealings with Abraham Lincoln and various subordinates.

Ramseur's and McClellan's writings convey a great deal of information about two compelling characters. Beyond that biographical contribution, they promote a broader understanding of the years between 1846 and 1865.

By Gary Gallagher  | November 30, 2010; 9:26 AM ET
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