Who is the most readable CW historian?

J C J Barefoot

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Sep 10, 2019
I recently picked up and quickly put down a new history book - the writer seemed to have lots of facts but the writing was so bad I couldn't follow the thread of the narrative. My husband confessed he'd found that same historian, who is very well regarded, a chore to read as well. So I got to thinking - which Civil War historian writes the most readable books? Books that are so well put together that you can't put them down. Histories that flow like a novel. Obviously I don't mean something that isn't factual. But what writers, in your opinion, really tell the story well?
I understand. Try to work through Sears, is like having a tooth ache. Catton and Foote for sure are among the best. Catton for his word selection and Foote for his writing style as a plot novelist. I'd have to add Joseph Wheelan, John Keegan and of course James McPhearson.
All make the period come alive.
 

J C J Barefoot

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Sep 10, 2019
Hah !

That I can easily believe.

My ex Father-in-Law was also from the Mississippi Delta and moved to Memphis after the Korean War ... around 1956.
Although he didn't "know" Shelby Foote, he did meet him more than a few times over the years. So they had much in common &
probably knew a lot of the same people.

However, my Father-in-Law was also in "rare form" just about every day after 5:00 pm.
So, I feel like those two probably knew each other better than they both remembered the next day.

:laugh:
Dude!
Everyday after 5PM is regular, not rare!
 

lupaglupa

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Apr 18, 2019
Location
Upstate New York
I've always been a fan of David McCullough even though he never authored anything about the "CW" as far as I know. He did the narration of Ken Burns "The Civil War" on PBS. If you have any relatives that served in the American Revolutionary war, I recommend "1776." I have several that did. Neat stuff.
David McCullough is a great example. I read his The Pioneers not too long ago and it was terrific.
 

Georgia Sixth

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Texas
Y'all definitely make me want to read Shelby Foote. I've been daunted in the past by the length of the books. It seems like a big commitment!
You will not be disappointed. He bookends his narrative with the saga of Jefferson Davis. The opening pages in volume one is Davis' farewell speech to the U.S. Senate after his home state voted to secede. The final pages of volume three tells of Davis' final days on his death bed and the nation's reaction to his passing. It's a masterful way to launch the ship and then bring it home to port for the final time, if you know what I'm saying. Besides his skill with words, here are the two features that I think make his narrative essential reading:

1) He periodically steps back and looks at the big picture. It's one thing to tell the gripping story of Antietam, but it's another to understand how it hit the northern public as it was just one of several confederate initiatives launched within a couple of months time. The Federals were able to turn them all back, but the impact not the public was profound. Without that understanding, you don't really understand how the Copperheads began building steam in late 1862, nor do you understand the growing pressure, almost desperation, on Lincoln's part to show progress....and nor do you understand why the southern confidence remained strong even as we in hindsight say they had little chance to succeed. Events suggested otherwise IF you can see them in context. Foote makes that happen.

2) Foote also is masterful at identifying the multiple pressures, anxieties, and gaps of information that plagued different politicians and commanders at key decision points. You start to see these guys more as people and you'll find yourself identifying with the quandaries these people found themselves in and their lonely search for the right decision. In other words, he is amazing at letting into the minds and thought processes of leaders in times of stress to the extent possible from what letters and communiques from the time that were available to Foote. He's not a historian. He didn't attempt to do historical research. But he took his time reading what accounts were available and then puts the pieces into the mental decision maps of people who determined the outcomes of such consequence. Here is where his being a novelist and not a historian gives his work a unique and engrossing dimension.
 

Irishtom29

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Joined
Jul 21, 2008
Location
Kent, Washington
I understand. Try to work through Sears, is like having a tooth ache. Catton and Foote for sure are among the best. Catton for his word selection and Foote for his writing style as a plot novelist. I'd have to add Joseph Wheelan, John Keegan and of course James McPhearson.
All make the period come alive.

Keegan's book on the American Civil War is so full of easily identifiable errors of fact it makes me wonder if he had mental problems late in life. And who were his editors?
 

lupaglupa

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Forum Host
Joined
Apr 18, 2019
Location
Upstate New York
You will not be disappointed. He bookends his narrative with the saga of Jefferson Davis. The opening pages in volume one is Davis' farewell speech to the U.S. Senate after his home state voted to secede. The final pages of volume three tells of Davis' final days on his death bed and the nation's reaction to his passing. It's a masterful way to launch the ship and then bring it home to port for the final time, if you know what I'm saying. Besides his skill with words, here are the two features that I think make his narrative essential reading:

1) He periodically steps back and looks at the big picture. It's one thing to tell the gripping story of Antietam, but it's another to understand how it hit the northern public as it was just one of several confederate initiatives launched within a couple of months time. The Federals were able to turn them all back, but the impact not the public was profound. Without that understanding, you don't really understand how the Copperheads began building steam in late 1862, nor do you understand the growing pressure, almost desperation, on Lincoln's part to show progress....and nor do you understand why the southern confidence remained strong even as we in hindsight say they had little chance to succeed. Events suggested otherwise IF you can see them in context. Foote makes that happen.

2) Foote also is masterful at identifying the multiple pressures, anxieties, and gaps of information that plagued different politicians and commanders at key decision points. You start to see these guys more as people and you'll find yourself identifying with the quandaries these people found themselves in and their lonely search for the right decision. In other words, he is amazing at letting into the minds and thought processes of leaders in times of stress to the extent possible from what letters and communiques from the time that were available to Foote. He's not a historian. He didn't attempt to do historical research. But he took his time reading what accounts were available and then puts the pieces into the mental decision maps of people who determined the outcomes of such consequence. Here is where his being a novelist and not a historian gives his work a unique and engrossing dimension.
This is a wonderful analysis - thank you!
 

Johnny Shafto

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Joined
Jun 21, 2021
Shelby spoke with an old accent that is rapidly disappearing.
:frown:

But the man's work really is easy to read !
I hope potential readers don't think they have to digest all three of his volumes at one time.
This is so true. I often use his trilogy as one might use a reference book. Grab a volume, drill down on a topic, then see what Foote’s take was on history as he found it. It’s probably important to keep in mind that Foote was a fine southern gentlemen. Critics have described his efforts as a “cozy form of storytelling” and by his own admission as a writer, not a historian. But once the reader understands this context they can relax and enjoy every moment. As mentioned earlier in this thread his writing is so good that his words at times seem almost poetic. At some point these works approach required reading in everyone’s search for our past.

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