A quick disclaimer – this is not the illustrated edition. While the new heritage edition is phenomenal and highly recommended by me in all ways possible, I read the older, short one. I’d probably recommend getting the new/picture edition because everyone loves pictures and as I said, it’s phenomenal. I actually love and recommend most of the American Heritage History books but let’s not digress too much 😅
While trying to focus on sci-fi month and a million other things, I’ve sadly neglected nonfiction november. I am always and forever a huge fan of history and have written a few pieces on various Civil War literature. I wish that this blog contained more.
It’s always nice to read a good biography or account of a specific battle or focus on one theme, but the recommendations that most lay people are looking for are basic overarching books that hit all the main points of need-to-know, for which I think this book is a great candidate.
I feel like I’ve read the American Heritage History of the Civil War at least once before, actually I think I also have the new enhanced and illustrated edition, and Bruce Catton needs no introduction as one of America’s top historians. Originally published in 1960, The Civil War takes the average reader through everything from pre war tensions to politics, major battles and important timelines, to the overall feelings and consequences resulting from the carnage moving forward after surrender.
I think it’s good to step back and read something like this once in a while to keep the whole time period in perspective. Catton also keeps things interesting – I mean, I actually don’t remember reading a lot about the NYC riots and general unrest throughout the country. The book has a wonderfully all inclusive scope.
So yeah I definitely recommend grabbing this one if you have a casual interest in the Civil War. You’ll learn how it went from a parade field day to a real conflict, from Gettysburg to Sherman’s march to the sea.
I think the most interesting fact that I learned was actually about the Russian Czar using America as a safe harbor, and everyone thought he was backing the Union with naval support 🤣. Another interesting thing that hit me is (because I have a niche interest in cavalry and tend to read entire novels on it) how in broad terms, they didn’t play that huge of a role in the war, and/or Catton just isn’t interested, and/or the layperson doesn’t care to read it. As I said, it’s all about perspective.
Of course Catton tackles slavery too from the perspective of the times. I think it will shock a lot of readers in 2022 who have such black and white views on racism and slavery, how it was but also was not that defined of an issue in those days. One thing I think Catton captured well was how slavery really fit into the stunting of the Southern industrial revolution and eventually set the confederates up for failure on so many levels.
TL,DR: I always learn a ton reading anything by Bruce Catton. I think this is a great book. I recommend the new picture edition, or if you want a deeper version of more general history, Catton also wrote a three volume set. There are also a pair of biographies by James McPherson that look at Lincoln and Davis that I think would add a lot if you’re looking for further reading more centered on politics and world view. You can’t go wrong with anything McPherson writes. I’ve got a whole library of recommendations if anyone is looking for anything specific 😅
Synopsis: Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bruce Catton’s unsurpassed account of the Civil War, one of the most moving chapters in American history. Introduced by Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson, the book vividly traces the epic struggle between the Blue and Gray, from the early division between the North and South to the final surrender of Confederate troops.