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Posted at 9:27 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Brent Glass: What are the best new Civil War books?

By Brent D. Glass

Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History


Since there are more than 100 books about the Civil War that appear in bookstores and libraries each year, it is hard to read them all, let alone select the best. However, there are two outstanding monographs published in recent years that I recommend: "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," by Drew Gilpin Faust and "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery," by Eric Foner.

Gilpin, who is currently president of Harvard University, examines the enormous impact of the deaths of 620,000 soldiers (almost two percent of the entire population of the United States) on American society and culture. Foner is a distinguished professor of history at Columbia University and he carefully reconstructs the intellectual and emotion evolution of Abraham Lincoln as he confronts the central issue of his generation and the nation: the enslavement of four million African Americans.

Permit me the liberty of mentioning a few other favorites that should be on any Civil War bookshelf. James M. McPherson's "The Battle Cry of Freedom" is still the best single account of the causes, conduct, and consequences of the war. The best books I have read about Lincoln include the great biography "Lincoln" by David Donald and the careful analysis of the Gettysburg Address by Garry Wills, "Lincoln at Gettysburg." There is no better description of the final days of the war than Jay Winik's "April, 1865" and I am always telling people to read "Manhunt," James Swanson's masterful account of Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath. Although it is a work of fiction, Michael Sharra's "Killer Angels" stands out for its dramatic telling of the Battle of Gettysburg and the personal stories of Joshua Chamberlain, John Buford, James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Robert E. Lee.

In the field of the Civil War and public memory, please include "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz, a thoughtful and often riotous look at the way the war is commemorated and reenacted. Two published catalogs by the National Museum of American History, "Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" by Harry Rubenstein and "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" that includes a major section on the Civil War--showcase the museum's rich collections tell the story of the defining event in American history.

By Brent D. Glass  | December 6, 2010; 9:27 AM ET
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