The Civil War is without question one of the seminal moments in US history—fundamentally reshaping the political, social, racial, and economic structures of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New research continues to illuminate how we understand both the events of the war and how its legacy continues to impact our modern world.
Here are seven titles that provide new perspectives on the war and its legacy.
1. Of Age
Of Age by Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant explores the enlistment of minors on both sides of the US civil war, and how Americans responded. This comprehensive study offers military, legal, medical, social, political, and cultural perspectives as well as demographic analysis of this important aspect of the war.
Underage enlistees comprised roughly 10% of the Union army and likely a similar proportion of Confederate forces. These boys served as musicians, messengers, and medical assistants, but they also took up arms and died in both armies.
An original and sweeping work, Of Age convincingly demonstrates why underage enlistment is such an important lens for understanding the history of children and youth and the transformative effects of the US Civil War.
2. Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy
A former Methodist preacher and Missouri schoolteacher, John R. Kelso served as a Union Army foot soldier, cavalry officer, guerrilla fighter, and spy. Driven by an intense desire for revenge, Kelso was hailed as a hero by Union newspapers and called a monster by Confederate sympathizers. After the war, he served in the House of Representatives and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
In Teacher, Preacher, Soldier Spy by Christopher Grasso, Kelso’s life story offers a unique vantage on dimensions of nineteenth-century American culture that are usually treated separately: religious revivalism and political anarchism; sex, divorce, and Civil War battles; freethinking and the Wild West.
3. A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood
A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood offers a new perspective on the crucial role the Bible played in the Civil War, what scriptures were most popular at the time, and the impact they had on military conflict in early American history.
In this insightful narrative author James P. Byrd explores the many ways the Bible was important to the Civil War. Soldiers fought with Bibles in hand, and both sides called the war just and sacred. With approximately 750,000 fatalities, the Civil War was the deadliest of the nation’s wars, leading many to turn to the Bible not just to fight but to deal with its inevitable trauma.
A fascinating overview of religious and military conflict, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood draws on an astonishing array of sources to demonstrate the many ways that Americans enlisted the Bible in the nation’s bloodiest, and arguably most biblically-saturated conflict.
4. Rebels in the Making
Rebels in the Making is a narrative-driven history of how and why secession occurred. In this work, senior Civil War historian William L. Barney narrates the explosion of the sectional conflict into secession and civil war.
By examining the political developments in each of the fifteen slave states and how they culminated in secession, Rebels in the Making seeks to bring together the economic, social, and political circumstances affecting the southern states for a unique and comprehensive understanding of a pivotal point in American history.
Barney draws together the voices of planters, non-slaveholders, women, the enslaved, journalists, and politicians. This is the definitive study of the seminal moment in Southern history that culminated in the Civil War.
5. Happy Dreams of Liberty
In 1856, when Samuel Townsend died on his Alabama plantation he left his estate to his five sons, four daughters, and two nieces—all of them his slaves. Happy Dreams of Liberty is the poignant, multi-generational saga of a mixed-race family in the US West and South from the antebellum period through the rise of Jim Crow.
In this deeply researched, movingly narrated portrait of the extended Townsend family, R. Isabela Morales reconstructs the migration of this mixed-race family across the American West and South over the second half of the nineteenth century.
Happy Dreams of Liberty draws from hundreds of unpublished letters to narrate an intimate history of one family’s experiences in slavery and freedom, and addresses changing societal perceptions of mixed-race individuals from the fluidity of the antebellum period through the hardening racial lines of the early twentieth century.
6. Only the Clothes on Her Back
What can dresses, bedlinens, waistcoats, pantaloons, shoes, and kerchiefs tell us about the legal status of the least powerful members of American society? Only the Clothes on Her Back raises this question through its unique examination of ordinary women and men’s economic and legal status in American history through their clothing.
Author Laura F. Edwards, these textiles tell a revealing story of ordinary people and how they made use of their material goods’ economic and legal value in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War. The work uncovers forgotten practices, nuanced laws around the valuation of textiles, and how they affected the new republic’s economy and governing institutions.
Based on painstaking archival research from fifteen states, Only the Clothes on Her Back reconstructs this hidden history of power in antebellum America, tracing it from the governing order of the early republic in which textiles’ legal principles flourished to the textiles’ legal downfall in the mid-nineteenth century when they were crowded out by the rising power of rights.
7. The Scourge of War
In The Scourge of War, preeminent military historian Brian Holden Reid offers a deeply researched life and times account of William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the best-known generals in the Civil War.
The book seeks to foster an understanding of Sherman, examining various key points in his life, from his childhood and education, to his business ventures in California, his antebellum leadership of a military college in Louisiana, and much more. The Scourge of War shows how unlikely his exceptional Civil War career would seem and demonstrates how crucial his family was to his professional path.
A definitive biography of a preeminent military figure by a renowned military historian, The Scourge of War is a masterful account of Sherman’ life that fully recognizes his intellect, strategy, and actions during the Civil War.
As a Civil War researcher, I appreciate learning of these new titles.