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Posted at 9:29 AM ET, 11/30/2010

Waite Rawls: What are the best new Civil War books?

By Waite Rawls

President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy


Forty years ago, the Museum of the Confederacy began giving an annual award to recognize the year’s best new book on the Civil War. Many people on the list of participants on this site, sponsored by the Washington Post, have won our Jefferson Davis Award -- some several times -- and many have also served on the panel of historians who select our winner. To answer this question, I will defer to this year’s panel.

As a testament to how hard their job is, the 2010 panel could not select only one winner; for the first time in the Museum’s history the award was given to two people. The panel was led by Dr. Peter Carmichael, the Director of the Gettysburg Institute; Dr. Caroline Janney, Assistant Professor of History at Purdue; and a Trustee at the Museum of the Confederacy, Dr. William Freehling, himself a previous winner of the award.

One of the winners was "U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth" by Joan Waugh, a participant in this Washington Post panel. Since Professor Waugh is probably too modest to nominate her own book, I will compliment her approach to this subject. Rather than a typical biography, she delved deeply into how our memory of Grant has evolved over time. From the hero of the North who did more on the battlefields to save the Union than anyone else, to a victim of Lost Cause memory as a butcher and drunk, and now reemerging as the magnanimous leader who set the tone for national reunification at Appomattox, Grant is a great example of how a person’s reputation is not static. Indeed his image has morphed over and over again through 150 years. Professor Waugh leads us carefully through those stages. This path illuminates her subject extremely well and helps the reader understand better all of the different impressions that they might have of the subject.

The other winner was Daniel Sutherland’s "A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War." A Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, Sutherland pushes forward the point that guerrilla warfare was not the side show that is normally depicted. In fact, its evolving conduct was one of the key components of the war, particularly as seen from the Confederate home front. I personally found that Sutherland’s book, along with Clay Mountcastle’s new book, "Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals," has given me new insights into my understanding of the human emotions of the participants on both sides of the current conflict in the Middle East. They illustrate well how guerrillas feel justified in “not playing by the rules” and how the frustration of their targets builds until they also abandon “the rules” of civil warfare.

By Waite Rawls  | November 30, 2010; 9:29 AM ET
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