Friday, January 8, 2010

2009: My Year in Books

The other day, as I read a post on the fine blog My Adventures in History, I came across a wonderful post about Rebecca’s (the blogmaster) 10 favorite history books of 2009, and I decided that was such a great idea, I would steal the thought for my own blog (which I openly admitted in my comments to her.)

Now, I’m not going to actually create a formal "best of" list, but I do want to list some of the books I read this (I mean last year, but I may repeat that mistake, sadly enough) year and perhaps make a few comments about them. I will especially try to list ones from the first half of 2009 before I joined the blogsphere, as I have reviewed a few of these volumes in the past several months and I don’t want to repeat too much.

One that I started in late 2008, but finished in early 2009 was Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief by James M. McPherson. I must admit I was a bit disappointed with it. It was McPherson’s usual good writing, very readable and a nice overview of the war, but it did not touch upon the Commander-in-Chief’s role as much as I had hoped. It still is a fine book, but maybe my expectations were too high, given how much I have enjoyed other works by McPherson.

I then moved on to Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 by Harold Holzer. I enjoyed this book very much. I was not familiar with the term the “Great Secession Winter” before reading this work. I also liked how Holzer showed the “masterly inactivity” that Lincoln and his advisors tried to practice before he took office, not repeating what they had mentioned so often in the campaign of 1860.

The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth by Earl J. Hess was one of the most thought-provoking and interesting books I can recall reading. Hess’ research and the points he makes about how the rifle, despite great expectations at the start of the war and its reputation since, did not reach its maximum potential usefulness, due to many reasons, especially regarding the lack of training for soldiers to use it. In fact, Hess argues the old smoothbore muskets were similar in effect, since the distance between opposing forces remained in the smoothbore’s range, negating the potential impact of the rifle musket’s increased accuracy over distance. This is a must read for any Civil War student.

William E Dickens Jr. is a pastor at a Northern Kentucky church and a veteran of the war in Iraq, where he served as chaplain. His work, Answering the Call: The Story of the U. S. Military Chaplaincy from the Revolution through the Civil War is a fine review of the history of chaplains throughout U.S. military history. It contends that much of the modern chaplain position started becoming so during the Civil War, as this was a position that had not had much regulation in the country’s youth. I saw Dr. Dickens give a presentation on chaplains and had the privilege of meeting him. This is a fine book, and another on a subject that is not often covered in most Civil War studies.

John C. Waugh’s One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War struck me as bordering on hagiography, but is a good book for any admirers of Abraham Lincoln in his pre-presidential years. It is a good read, heavy on praise for its subject.

Englishman Paddy Griffith wrote Battle Tactics of the Civil War, a book I learned of in Hess’s work about the rifle musket. It was another very good book, but is a bit technical at times, at the very edge of my understanding of military tactics and information. Griffith argues that the Civil War was closer to one of the Napoleonic wars rather than “the first modern war” as it is often described. It is a very informative book, though it sometimes takes effort for a military amateur like myself to get through it. Griffith’s and Hess’ works would make for a good pairing to read back-to-back, especially for those interested in the military aspects of this war. (After all, what is a war, if not a contest between two (or more) militaries?)

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr. is a very strong candidate for my favorite book from 2009, if not my favorite Civil War work ever. I rarely have enjoyed a book like I did this one. It was very readable and flowed well, and covered all of Lincoln’s life. I thought it did an especially good job of discussing Lincoln’s role not only as Commander-in-Chief, but also as de facto General-in-Chief when he could not prod Henry Halleck into doing the job as Lincoln conceived of it. I thought this work covered this aspect much better and in-depth than McPherson’s worked mentioned earlier. I will not go on much further, but White also established a theme around Lincoln’s growth as a writer, speechmaker, politician and moral person. In fact, this book helped inspire my series of blog entries on how the phrase “internal improvements” applied to Lincoln himself, not just his economic policy. The first entry is here while my entries of August 26 and August 28 also covered this theory.

This entry is getting to be a bit longer than I anticipated, so I will post this now, and then add a few more books in a future post as well, including some of those I reviewed in-depth in previous blog entries. I finished Mr. White’s work on June 10, so that’s about the half-way point and a good place to stop.

Happy reading!

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