NY: Citadel Press/Kensington Publishing, 2001.
Anyone who proposes to recommend the fifty “must-read” or “core” books in any field is going to start arguments — but that’s probably a good thing. Wooster is a long-time professor of U.S. history with a string of publishing credits of his own having to do with the Civil War, and his opinions are certainly worth considering. The problem, of course, is that the War is undoubtedly the single most popular publishing topic in American history, more than 50,000 works having been written to date. A couple dozen of those have been big sellers and controversy-magnets among the general reading public, and have won Pulitzers and National Book Awards.
It’s that audience Wooster is writing for here, not his fellow academics, and so he tries, mostly successfully, to write simply without over-simplifying the complex issues involved. He excludes multi-volume works, though, which I think is a mistake: All Civil War buffs are going to be familiar with Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, and Douglas Southall Freeman. (He tries to save himself by choosing only one volume from each of their trilogies, which seems a bit silly.) Still — no Virgil Carrington? No Allan Nevins? No James G. Randall? A few authors rate more than one work in the list, and I can’t argue with that. Some authors, like James McPherson and Kenneth Stampp, are simply far more productive and influential than most. The principal excluded class that some readers might quarrel with is first-person accounts; all the books in this list are secondary works. These are important to scholarship but there are so many caveats one must be aware of, especially having to do with context, that I can’t bring myself to argue with that decision, either. Finally, Wooster prefers to emphasize the larger picture, including politics and diplomatics, rather than individual battles or even campaigns — with the notable exception of Landscape Turned Red, Stephen Sears’s extraordinary analysis of Antietam.
Wooster doesn’t merely recommend a certain collection of books about the Civil War, however — he dares to rank them in order of importance, by which he means not only the key nature of the subject matter but a work’s readability and accessibility by a general audience. By these standards, it’s difficult to argue with his choice for No. 1: James McPherson’s brilliant and insightful Battle Cry of Freedom. Going through the list, I find that I have read, over the years, forty-five of the fifty. (No, I won’t admit which titles I haven’t read.) And I own personal copies of twenty of them, . . . but I’m a career librarian from a large system, with ready access to any of these titles. My own favorites aren’t necessarily the same as Wooster’s. I’m very partial to Bell Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb (though I would have included his parallel volume on “Billy Yank”), and to Frank Vandiver’s Rebel Brass, and to Kenneth Stampp’s And the War Came. And I’m not sure I would have included Litwak’s Been in the Storm So Long, which is far too strident and politically correct for my taste, or Howard Jones’s Union in Peril, which is simply too narrow in its subject matter for a comparatively restricted list like this one. But I definitely agree with the author’s choice of best fictional treatment of the War: Shaara’s Killer Angels, a mesmerizing narrative which I have reread several times in the thirty-odd years since it was published. The only negative thing that might be said about Wooster’s list is the unavoidable one — that it is now a decade out of date. I would be interested in seeing what additional three or five books published since 2000 he would add to his earlier choices. As I said, this book will engender arguments. It was meant to. So read it, and be better prepared for the next one.