Monday, August 2, 2010

Civil War 'One Hit Wonders'

While scanning the home Civil War library this past weekend, along with its horrid state of disorganization I noted that most writers of exceptional studies have not been content to publish just one. But it's not unheard of. The term "one hit wonder" is popularly used unfairly in a derogatory manner, as if there is some measure of inadequacy in not wishing to or not being able to follow up a popular song, book, etc. with another equally good or better. Not so here. At least from my own collection, what immediately comes to mind is the talented amateur enthusiast tackling a neglected battle or campaign subject of particular and often lifelong interest to the author.

In this post, I've compiled a short list of some favorite authorial one hit wonders, with selection criteria as follows:
  • Work must be a significant contribution, either to a narrow subject or the field in general, that has not been clearly surpassed with the passage of time.
  • Nothing else of comparable dimension has appeared from the author;  pamphlets, edited works and essay compilations do not count.

1.  Richard J. Sommers - Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg.

Most certainly not an amateur historian, Sommers is the biggest name on the list. It took me three tries to finally finish this particular tome (and yes I've read all the complaints about his style), but I've often wished that the master archivist and mainstay of just about everyone's Acknowledgment page had written more.

2.  Patrick Brennan - Secessionville: Assault On Charleston.

I rate Pat's book and Wise's Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863 as the two best secondary works covering any part of the still neglected '62-'65 Charleston campaigns. Someone really needs to update Burton, too.

3. Margie Riddle Bearss - Sherman's Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition.

Until Buck Foster's book appeared in 2006, Bearss's was the only full treatment of the subject, and, in my opinion, hers remains the best.

4. Michael E. Banasik - Embattled Arkansas: The Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862.

I am surprised this one hasn't been reprinted. It remains the only book to adequately cover the '62 Union campaigns in the Indian Territory and the great Confederate recruiting drives inside Missouri prior to the Prairie Grove campaign.

5.  Noel Carpenter - A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864, Clumsy Beginning of Gen. John B. Hood's Tennessee Campaign.

A fine mature work, published after the author's death.

Using the same criteria, does anyone else have favorites they'd like to share?


  1. Hello Drew

    I've never read either of these, but they popped into my mind after reading your post.

    For Cause and Country - Jacobson

    Extraordinary Circumstances - Burton
    7 Days campaign

    I've been told the Burton title is well worth reading. I don't know that much about Jacobson's.

    Don Hallstrom

  2. Great idea! Please correct me if I'm wrong and these books were in fact followed up by the author.

    Looking at my shelves, I see:

    Richard Moe's "Last Full Measure" - while it's seriously, IMO, flawed in it's methodology, it's wonderfully written.

    Edward Steere's "The Wilderness Campaign" - in my book, still the best study on that campaign.

    Grabau's "Ninety-Eight Days"

    I know Chris Fonnvielle previously wrote a short book on Fort Anderson, but he has yet to follow up his outstanding :The Wilmington Campaign."

  3. Coddington, and Hennesey

  4. Hi Don,
    I thought of Burton but didn't think it fair since his first book isn't really that old. Plus, as a follow up effort, he did publish what I would consider a substantial Peninsula/Seven Days battlefield guide.

    Jacobson's Franklin book is a hit, but he has published a second time, The McGavock Confederate Cemetery, so I couldn't include him.

  5. Hi Harry,
    Thanks for commenting. I went back and forth with Fonvielle, and ended up not including him as I thought the Fort Anderson book was material enough to discount him from the list. It's an arguable point, though!

    Grabau is another that could go both ways. He did co-author with Ed Bearss the book that is still the only stand-alone study of the two "Sieges" of Jackson, MS. He also wrote a Battle of Raymond book, which I've never seen, but that might be considered more of a pamphlet than a book.

    You got me on Moe and Steere! I don't know of any others offhand.

  6. Simon,
    Hennessy has written a good tactical FBR book in addition to his 2nd BR classic, so I would toss him out on the strength of those two alone.

    Coddington, on the other hand, is a good one, probably the best name put forth so far.

  7. Drew -

    I've always admired James V. Murfin's "The Gleam of Bayonets." Still, IMO, one of the best Antietam studies ever. Though Murfin published numerous pamphlets and books on national parks, I do not believe he ever published another book-length ACW study.


  8. Very Interesting post!

    I've been trying to think of some:

    1)Pickett's Charge by George Stewart

    2)The Battle of Carthage: Border War in Southwest Missouri, July 5, 1861 by David Hinze

    3)In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War by Alice Rains Trulock

    4)Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life (Civil War America) by Donald Pfanz

    5)Tennessee's Forgotten Warriors: Frank Cheatham and His Confederate Division by Christopher Losson

    6)If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania by William D. Matter

  9. Paul,
    Murfin is a good choice. I've never read him, but I've come across many who echo your thoughts about GoB's quality.

  10. It's ironic that Murfin was mentioned. I was going to add him but thought his other Civil War work might knock him off this list.

  11. Drew – great post!
    I would add two newer works:

    J. Tracy Power’s Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia


    Fred Ray’s Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia.


  12. Hi Michael,
    It's been going on 12 years since "Lee's Miserables" so Power is a great candidate (his Stonewall Jackson children's book doesn't count!).

  13. Hi Drew,

    Excellent post as usual. I would suggest taking Banasik off the list as I have six other titles authored or edited by him.

    Andy Walters

  14. Hi Chris,
    After reading your comment, I looked up a list of Murfin's books. The other CW publication that I could see was something called "Battlefields of the Civil War". Whether it is substantial enough to be material to the subject I have no idea.

  15. Andy,
    My criteria eliminate edited works from consideration (see the bullets near the top of the page), even though it is recognized that substantial research greater than many original studies often goes into them. Unless I am suffering a big brain cramp, I don't know of any other fully original works published by Banasik beside EA.

  16. Ditto on Grabau's and Jacobson's books. I still think Grabau's "Ninety-eight Days" is the best Vicksburg book out there.

    I'd also recommend Phil Gottschalk's "In Deadly Earnest: The History of the First Missouri Brigade."

  17. I would like to add 'More Terrible than Victory: North Carolina's Bloody Bethel Regiment, 1861-65' by Craig S. Chapman. Really an excellent regimental history and gives great insight at the soldier's level to the horrible and intense fighting of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns.

    For some reason Chapman never followed up that fabulous book.


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