Guest Columns


A New Years’ Eve Civil War battle

Contributing Columnist

First, following is a brief description of a very bloody and inconclusive battle (technically counted as a Union victory) known as the Battle of Stones River or Murfreesboro. Second, I’ve provided a list of my own favorite Civil War historians/non-fiction writers and some suggested (very readable, not dry and boring) books related to the Civil War and its place in our national psyche.

I. A Not-So-Happy 1862-63 New Year’s Eve in Tennessee. The Battle was Stones River/Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, from December 31, 1862 through January 2, 1863. The Generals in charge, Union General William Rosencrans and Confederate General Braxton Bragg, were not among the best either side had to offer. But other officers and soldiers, including men of past and future fame, are worth noting, such as the Union’s George Thomas and Phil Sheridan, and the Confederacy’s John Breckinridge, who had been vice president under James Buchanan, then one of two 1860 Democratic presidential candidates (along with Stephen Douglas) against Abraham Lincoln.

Stones River was proportionally the most deadly battle of the entire war, with approximately 25,000 casualties from total engaged troops of about 75,000 (33 percent Confederates and 31 percent Union killed or wounded).

On the night of December 30, 1862, both sides supposedly joined in singing “Home Sweet Home,” then the next day they slaughtered one another. It’s an attestation to our lack of understanding of the Civil War that this “enemy sing along” Theater of the Absurd became an iconic image of a reluctant conflict between friends and brothers in white America’s memory of the Civil War, while the President’s simultaneous signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (on Jan. 1, 1863) became one of our nation’s most profound moments of liberty and freedom, only to be followed by more than 100 years of unfulfilled/broken promises.

If there is a lighter note to the Battle of Stones River/Murfreesboro, it’s likely to be found in the tactics each side had in mind. Both Rosencrans and Bragg intended to slam into one another’s right flanks to begin the battle. Sadly, one side struck first (the Confederates), so we’ll never know if a simultaneous attack of this nature would have created a revolving pinwheel or simply meant that both armies switched places.

II. Civil War Writers and Books that should not be missed. A number of caveats: first, this list doesn’t include a category on Abraham Lincoln, because that extensive list will be in a future column. Second, my list of top tier authors/historians here includes those I have actually read, and if there are others I should check out, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Third, Bruce Catton is not included because his body of work is both too voluminous currently and subject to both literary and historical scrutiny that cannot be adequately treated in this column.

Category 1: Top Tier Authors/Historians (not named James M. McPherson) who are currently living and writing about the Civil War. Again, these are all authors I have personally read and hope to read again. While I have no doubt there are many others of note, I just haven’t gotten to them yet. In the meantime, you cannot go wrong with books, articles and essays written by these folks:

David Blight
Richard Carwardine
William C. “Jack” Davis
Drew Gilpin Faust
Amanda Foreman
Charles Bracelyn Flood
Gary Gallagher
Adam Goodheart
Allen Guelzo
Harold Holzer
Chandra Manning
John Marzsalek
William Lee Miller
Mark E. Neely, Jr.
Gordon Rhea
Stephen W. Sears
Jean Edward Smith
Ronald C. White, Jr.
Douglas L. Wilson
Joan Waugh

Category 2: If Jim McPherson wrote it, you should read it! Here are four suggestions, but there are numerous other worthwhile titles to check out as well.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson, 1988. This history of the Civil War, presented in a comprehensive yet riveting narrative style is the book that revived my own personal interest in this period, and pulled me back from falling for some of the revisionist myths and other inaccuracies about the conflict. If you read either this column or any of the numerous more credible sources on the history of the Civil War, you’re likely already aware that this Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece remains the uncontested definitive single volume work in the field.

This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, by James McPherson, 2007. Oxford University Press. The author compiles, organizes, and revises some of his most insightful essays and articles into a coherent overview of major aspects of the Civil War Era, including slavery, Generals, home-front and battle-front perspectives, and, of course, Lincoln. This book works as a beginning to end endeavor as well as a collection of freestanding essays.

Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the Civil War, James M. McPherson, 1996. Oxford University Press. As with This Mighty Scourge, McPherson assembles a variety of his essays, ranging from excellent to profound, for modern reflection on what happened before, during, and after, our national self-immolation. But in addition, he also treats readers to a final essay, titled “What’s the Matter With History.” If you don’t buy this book, at least check it out at the library and read that particular work.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson, 2008. Penguin Press. This is a masterful look at Lincoln as the military novice who mastered all aspects of his role as a wartime Commander in Chief.

Category 3: South, North, Black, and White: Striving to make sense of the mayhem and subsequent broken promises. Or, summarizing Robert Penn Warren’s classic presentation, after the Civil War the South had “The Great Alibi” and the North had the “Treasury of Virtue,” and both self-serving myths served as the rationale to acquiesce in the demise of Reconstruction.

The Legacy of the Civil War, by Robert Penn Warren, 1961. America’s first Poet Laureate, the only winner of a Pulitzer Prize for prose fiction (All the King’s Men, 0) and for poetry (twice, in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1958; and in 1979 for Now and Then), Warren is renowned as one of our greatest writers ever. Yet many are not aware of The Legacy of the Civil War, a brief but profound discussion of the manner in which both southern and northern cultural memory of the war have both mangled the true history and simultaneously delayed true reconciliation and redemption which we like to tout as outcomes of the conflict.

American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, by David W. Blight, 2011, The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz, 1998. Everyone needs to laugh out loud now and then, and this thoughtful and insightful work will evoke tears of both laughter and lament for ghosts and delusions which still haunt our national memory of the Civil War and its meaning.

Category 4: Civil War Generals: At the pinnacle, there was Grant. In second place, there were R. E. Lee, Wm. T. Sherman, T. (Stonewall) Jackson, W. S. Hancock, Sheridan, J. Johnston, and Longstreet. There were also a bunch of other guys, ranging from excellent and courageous leaders to drunken cowards.

Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters, by Ulysses S. Grant, 1885. Currently available from a number of publishers, but the best is the American Library Edition (1990).

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won The Civil War, by Charles Bracelyn Flood, 2005. Harper Perennial Press.

Lincoln’s Generals, by T. Harry Williams, 1952, Knopf Publishing (out of print, but I have an extra copy you may borrow).

Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, by Major General J.F.C. Fuller, 1957. Indiana University Press

I look forward to providing additional future recommendations, including some of the equally great authors/historians who are no longer with us but whose works remain essential and relevant. And then of course, there’s Abraham Lincoln, about whom many have said that only Jesus Christ has been the topic of more written material. I don’t know the accuracy of that statement, but certainly it is not too difficult to find great and accurate history about our 16th President.

Happy New Year.

Patrick Teegarden writes about the Civil War for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at