Saturday, April 7, 2007

On the Reading Stand

My reading tends to go in spurts of themes, and the Civil War has been the dominant theme over the past few months. Here are the most recent books to pass my reading stand, roughly in order of reading...

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. This is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of the battle's major players, including Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead on the Confederate side, and Buford and Chamberlain on the Federal side. The novel shines in many areas, including Chamberlain's holding of the Federal's extreme left flank at Little Round Top, the sheer insanity of Pickett's charge, and the tension between Lee and Longsteet over the right course of action. This novel was also used as the primary source for the 1993 movie, Gettysburg.

Gods and Generals, by Jeff Shaara. Written to be a sort of prequel to his late father's masterpiece, this novel continues Michael Shaara's technique of telling the Civil War story from the perspective of the central figures. Here we start back in 1858 and work up through to 1863, from the points of view of Chamberlain, Hancock, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Perhaps not as quite a masterpiece as his father's work, but nonetheless still very enjoyable. I think if I were to do it over again, I'd read this first, then read Killer Angels.

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, by Stephen Sears. With nearly 23,000 casualties, the Battle of Antietam remains the single bloodiest day in American history. We simply cannot imagine this today - twenty three thousand casualties in less than 24 hours. What I most liked about this book was the set up that helps us understand the significance of the battle itself - the political landscape with the threat of Britain and France supporting the war on the Confederate side, the role of the Emancipation Proclamation in stemming that threat to the Union, Lee's march into Maryland, the battle at Harpers' Ferry, and the Union discovery of Lee's Special Order 191 are all well told. The battle itself is told in full detail - at times I thought just a little too much detail. But still - twenty three thousand casualties. Can you imagine?

1776, by David McCullough. What's a Revolutionary War book doing here? I snuck it in because I needed a short, quick read during a recent trip to California. This is an excellent read that goes from the seige of Boston, to the British success in driving the Revolutionary army out of New York City, to, of course, the Battle of Trenton. To me, Washington's growth as a commanding general really came through in McCullough's book. This book should be required reading in every high school history curriculum.

Grant Takes Command, by Bruce Catton. An excellent look at Grant from just before he was given overall command of the Federal forces in 1863 through to end of the war. I'm about half way though this book right now.

Up next... probably David McCullough's John Adams. Yea, yea, I know...back to the Revolution!