For a few years before 2022, I’d been occasionally reading about the American Civil War. It’s something I grew up with; my grandparents were all born after it was over, but their parents lived through it. Tw sets of great grandparents lived through the Union occupation of New Orleans; one set lived in an unoccupied part of Louisiana; and one set survived the war as parts of Mississippi were ravaged by war (and often repeatedly).
This last group was the Youngs. Three sons and a son-in-law all enlisted in the Confederate army. One, the youngest, was too young to enlist when the war began but somehow signed up as a messenger boy. He was the only one to survive, and he was my great-grandfather Samuel. Not long after the war, his father died, and Samuel became the family patriarch at the ripe old age of 23 or 24. Samuel lived until 1920; my father was four years old when his grandfather died.
This year, I began reading about the war in earnest. Except for the Battle of Vicksburg, I had not known what Mississippi experienced during the war. The Young family, with my aging great-great grandfather with several daughters and daughters-in-law, lasted out the war in Brookhaven, Mississippi. I had to search hard to find out what, if anything, had happened in Brookhaven. The town was visited twice by Union troops, both times in 1863. First was Grierson’s Raid in April, which became the basis for the 1959 movie The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne. The second time was in July, during the siege of Jackson by Generals Grant and Sherman. A small contingent of Union troops made its way some 70 miles south of Jackson to Brookhaven, burning some mills, tearing up railroad track, and talking 200 prisoners at the conscript camp for the Confederate army there.
Few family stories have survived over the succeeding 160 years, and only a few about my great-grandfather the messenger boy. I’ve turned to books, articles, and research papers to find out at least some small idea of what my ancestors experienced. I’ve been left amazed.
Here are some of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Real Horse Soldiers; Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi by Timothy Smith. Smith corrects the misinformation contained in Grierson’s Raid by Dee Brown, published in 1953 and which provided the basis for the John Wayne movie.
The Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army After Appomattox by Caroline Janney is an excellent history, making the case for the unfinished business becoming the mythology of the post-war South.
Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina by Ernest Dollar Jr. I blogged twice on this book; once for the review and once explaining how it was a book that wouldn’t let go. What we now call post-traumatic stress disorder was alive and well in the Civil War and particularly at its end.
The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon Rhea. Published in 1994, this is the classic history of one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War (1994).
Diary of a Confederate Tarheel Soldier by Louis Leon. Published in 1913, this war memoir was written not only by a Confederate veteran but also one who was Jewish – and his parents in New York City sent him care packages when he was taken as a prisoner of war.
The Confederate Surrender at Greensboro by Robert Dunkerly. This is one of many concise Civil War histories published by Emerging Civil War. Dunkerly explains the surrender of General William Johnston to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, and how Sherman’s terms were considered far too lenient by official Washington.
The Civil War in Mississippi: Major Campaigns and Battles by Michael Ballard. I never realized how much of the state was was fought over by the opposing armies. It was far more than only Vicksburg.
Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front by Timothy Smith. Smith (who wrote the account of Grierson’s Raid noted above) also produced a book on what life was like for civilians in Mississippi – and it was anything but easy.
The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi by Jarret Ruminski. Ruminski covers some of the same ground as Timothy Smith above, but with a different focus. He looks at what happened to civilian loyalities over the course of the war.
The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi by Chris Mackowski and The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi by Jim Woodrick. Mackowski gives considerable details on the battle, while Woodrick takes a broader look (and includes what happened in outlying areas like Brookhaven).
Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi by William Harris (1967) and Reconstruction Mississippi by James Wilford Garner (1901). Harris looks at the program for Reconstruction approved by President Andrew Johnson (and eventually set aside by Congress; the Radical Republicans wanted vengeance and punishment, and they got it. The Garner book started life as a Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University; it is filled with data, charts, and graphs and a highly readable interpretation of them.
Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Mississippi in the Civil War by Bobby Roberts and Carl Moneyhon (1993). In the 1990s and early 200s, a series of these photography books were published, covering most of the states in the former Confederacy. Pictures can tell just as good a story as text.
The Army of the Potomac Trilogy by Bruce Catton (originally published 1951-1954; Library of America edition 2022). This is a classic, one that remains a remarkably up-to-date history of the army eventually commanded by Ulysses S. Grant. Two other classic histories I hope to read in 2023 are Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative and Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.
North Against South: The American Iliad 1848-1877 by Ludwell Johnson (1978). This is decidedly not a classic history. It is, however, a well-research and documented history of the Civil War from the Confederacy’s perspective.
Top photograph: Camp scene, Union soldiers guarding Confederate prisoners; National Archives.