Hawaiian author Kiana Davenport is perhaps best known for her short stories, which have garnered numerous prizes, including the Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry award. In her stories and novels (including the best-selling Shark Dialogues), Davenport has mostly drawn from her Pacific Islander heritage (her mother is a native Hawaiian). But in her fourth novel, The Spy Lover (Thomas & Mercer), she pulls from her Alabama-born father’s family history to tell a gripping Civil War story about three complicated, suffering people—a nurse who’s spying for the Union behind enemy lines, a Chinese immigrant who escapes his conscription into the Confederacy to fight for the Union instead, and a wounded Confederate cavalryman.
Davenport doesn’t buffer the brutality of war, presenting a stark portrayal of its horrors and the damage it can inflict on body and soul in her well-researched tale. Here, she shares her list of Top 10 Civil War Books for readers.
My Top 10 Civil War Books
By Kiana Davenport
After reading nearly 70 books on the Civil War, I find I am drawn to books written with a literary elegance and operatic sweep, which matches the tragic and haunting history of this horrendous yet magisterial engagement that gave birth to these United States.
1.) The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War—my first choice because a picture says a thousand words. A perfect introduction to the War, with in Bruce Catton’s brilliant prose that accompanies each picture. The photographs are lifelike, the maps indispensable. The reader is immediately swept into the war by the sheer impact of the images!
2.) A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton—Another classic from Catton, the 20th Century’s foremost American writer of the Civil War. He writes with a novelist’s sensibilities about the Army of the Potomac from the point of view of young soldiers in the ranks. A heartbreaking classic. Probably the best book ever written about the war!
3.) The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it received. Through Shaara’s ingenious writing, the reader enters the mind of each officer engaged in the Battle of Gettysburg: the terrible decisions, the searing cowardice and gallantry. Only with this book did I finally and fully grasp the great tragic folly of Pickett’s Charge.
4.) Shiloh by Shelby Foote. Another great chronicler of our Civil War. This was one of the bloodiest battles of that War, up until that time, rivalled only by Antietam for the number of deaths in one day. My ancestor, Warren Davenport, fought and was wounded in this battle, and the slow drumlike rhythm of Foote’s prose transported me to the very heart of the engagement.
5.) The March by E.L. Doctorow. The horror of Sherman’s diabolical “March to the Sea” through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, seen not just through soldiers’ eyes, but through the eyes of average humans struggling through the conflagration—slaves, prostitutes, homeless children, half-mad widows—their personal tragedies silhouetted against the fires and destruction of entire cities. Biblical, horrendous.
6.) The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. A classic. Depicting a young soldier confronting his cowardice, as well as his desire to be heroic. Written only 30 years after the War, the book has an authenticity that more modern novels lack. It conveys the the “innocence” of America in that era, and how that innocence was forever shattered in the War.
7.) The Black Flower by Howard Bahr. A brilliant, heartbreaking novel that should have received the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Written with eloquence and humanity in the style of Crane, Faulkner, even Homer, it portrays young Confederate riflemen trying to keep each other alive during the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee—and the fear, suffering and intense friendships that raged during the battle and its awful aftermath. A great book; I wept repeatedly.
8.) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. A grand telling of the ravaged South, one whose sweeping style is equal to the times it describes. Aside from the operatics of Scarlett and Rhett, the novel is a sociological study of the before and after of the Civil War, and the irrevocable transformation of the South by opportunistic industrialists from the North.
9.) The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by U.S. Grant himself. Not a novel, but Grant was such a fine prose stylist, it READS like a novel. A man who was once an unemployable drunk proves that one can rise to greatness and forever shape history. Here are his brilliant observations on warfare, leading soldiers, personal integrity and honor. Grant was dying of throat cancer when he wrote these memoirs. He warded off death till his task was done. A true soldier. Fascinating!
10.) Mothers of Invention and This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. Two brilliant companion-piece books that read like novels depicting the true legacy of war: death, and the heartbreak of caring for the dead, which is always left to women. The landscape covered with corpses, the shattered families dragging their dead home to be reburied. The mass graves, each holding hundreds of young soldiers forever lost to history. These are beautiful, elegaic, books that haunt the reader, and pose the question, “When will we ever learn?”