Wednesday, December 20, 2023

2023 - The CIVIL WAR BOOKS and AUTHORS Top Ten Year in Review

1. I DREAD THE THOUGHT OF THE PLACE: The Battle of Antietam and the End of the Maryland Campaign by D. Scott Hartwig (Johns Hopkins).

Was there really any other choice? In addition to being an unmatched microhistory of Antietam, Hartwig's book is quite simply one of the greatest Civil War battle studies ever written. "Magisterial" and "definitive" are two of the most overused labels in the reviewing world, but both can be applied here without any fear of intellectual embarrassment. By any measure, I Dread the Thought of the Place surpasses all previous attempts to chronicle the entire battle in a single volume. Pair it up with its 2012 companion To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign from September 3 to September 16 and you also have the best Maryland Campaign history at your fingertips. Kudos also go to JHU Press for publishing both books in unabridged glory. [For complete thoughts on this profoundly excellent title, visit the full Site Review (9/28/23)].

The Rest of the Year's TOP TEN (in no particular order)

[Reminder: It has become increasingly the case that a large proportion of any given year's best titles are 4Q releases. Because there isn't enough time to review all of them by December, such books become eligible for the following year's list (thus the reason why there are one or more 2022 books in this compilation).]

2. Small but Important Riots: The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville by Robert F. O'Neill (Potomac).

O'Neill's book, an extensive reworking of the author's older work on the same topic, is the best treatment of this early stage of the Gettysburg Campaign. That's great, but the reason the book is on this list is because it's also one of the very best examples of how to write a detailed study of Civil War mounted operations [for more comments, see the full 4/18/23 Review].

3. Agents of Empire: The First Oregon Cavalry and the Opening of the Interior Pacific Northwest during the Civil War by James Robbins Jewell (Nebraska).

Far West unit studies are exceedingly rare, and Jewell's groundbreaking narrative history tells the important yet neglected story of a volunteer Civil War regiment that carried out numerous important duties in the Pacific Northwest while the main fighting raged elsewhere on the continent [see the full 6/15/23 Review].

4. Sand, Science, and the Civil War: Sedimentary Geology and Combat by Scott Hippensteel (Georgia).

Another informative and original study from Hippensteel that draws useful and interesting connections between geological science and Civil War military history [see the 5/9/23 Review].

5. I Am Fighting for the Union: The Civil War Letters of Naval Officer Henry Willis Wells ed. by Robert M. Browning, Jr. (Alabama).

Greatly enhanced through Browning's editing and expert Civil War naval affairs knowledge, the Wells letters offer readers uncommon insights into the leadership and experiences of Union blockading squadron vessels that operated at numerous stations up and down the Atlantic seaboard from Virginia to Florida. [see the 6/23/23 Review].

6. The Governor's Pawns: Hostages and Hostage-Taking in Civil War West Virginia by Randall S. Gooden (Kent St).

Given the overall scale involved, Civil War hostage-taking deserves more attention in the book-length literature. Gooden's study offers an in-depth examination of the wartime seizure of civilian hostages by Union authorities in West Virginia and explores the practice's legal, political, and social ramifications. It also appropriately situates hostage-taking within its historical context and discusses the ways in which the hostage experience shaped the postwar lives of the victims. [see the 6/7/23 Review].

7. Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War by George C. Rable (LSU).

With most Civil War studies of this topic primarily focused on the military frustrations and disagreements that eventually dissolved the Lincoln-McClellan partnership, Rable refreshingly redirects attention toward the many internal and external politics-based issues that also played a profound role in driving the relationship toward failure. [see the 11/27/23 Review].

8. Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (Kansas).

The sequence of events described and analyzed in this book comprise arguably the toughest phase of the long 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign for an author to make interesting to prospective readers (casual or otherwise), but Smith succeeds in spades. It's a great setup to the next installment covering the furious series of engagements that ultimately decided the campaign's outcome [see the 12/4/23 Review].

9. Artillery of Antietam: The Union and Confederate Batteries at the Battle of Antietam by James A. Rosebrock (Antietam Inst).

As I never tire of pointing out, comprehensive reference books never get enough love during award season or in the assembly of year-end recommendations. Rosebrock's exhaustive compilation is a shining example of the category's best. [see the 12/11/23 Review].

10. Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31 - June 1, 1862 by Victor Vignola (Savas Beatie).

In terms of standalone book-length publications, the 1862 Peninsula Campaign still possesses an oddly extensive collection of neglected battles. Vignola not only fills in one of the larger holes in that grouping but does it with admirable thoroughness. [see the 12/15/23 Review].

*** See also the 2023 Honorable Mentions ***

1 comment:

  1. Very much agree with book of the year [I Dread the Thought of this Place (Hartwig, 2023)], few campaign studies combine both good story-telling and the detail and level of research... In many places in the book it represents very good oral history, despite the obvious that Mr. Hartwig did not interview the participants. This showed this author's ability to take letters, diaries and memoirs and fashion them into good oral history. Also, obvious was Mr. Hartwig's breath of knowledge of military history in general [one example are his couple references to Donald Knox's oral history of the Korean War; Pusan to Chosin]...


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