One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Kansas State Agricultural College, now Kansas State University, welcomed its first students. That same year, 1863, witnessed the three bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. Already in its third year, the conflict was far from over. Between May 1-4, 1863 over 30,000 Union and Confederate soldiers became casualties of war at Chancellorsville. In September 19-20, the Battle of Chickamauga added another 34,000 casualties to the Butcher’s Bill. In between those dates, on July 1-3, more than 51,000 soldiers of both the North and South were casualties at Gettysburg. Dead, wounded, missing, and captured soldiers on both sides totaled over 342,000 in 1863 alone.
In “The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign,” Shelby Foote wrote an epic account of another important battle of 1863. Foote told the story of Ulysses S. Grant, who, in addition to confronting difficult terrain and a heavily fortified city, was forced to contend with a politically ambitious rival, General John McClernand. Grant’s victory led to his eventual promotion as commander of all the Union armies.
Better known as the author of “Forrest Gump,” Winston Groom also wrote “Vicksburg, 1863.” In an exciting and balanced account of one of the most decisive campaigns of the war, Groom puts his readers into the hearts and minds of both the citizens and the soldiers living the battle and enduring hardships in the besieged city.
Gettysburg was perhaps the greatest of all Civil War battles. It turned the tide of the war, stopping the Confederate army’s northern advance, and putting Lee on the defensive for the remainder of the war. Historians have written at length about the Gettysburg campaign, but perhaps none better than Shelby Foote. In his “Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign,” Foote puts his readers on the battlefield, with the swirling smoke and clash of weapons. Foote’s history reads as great literature.
“Gettysburg,” by Stephen W. Sears is another excellent book about the Gettysburg campaign. Based on years of research, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the Battle of Gettysburg. Sears began his study with Robert E. Lee arguing with Jefferson Davis in favor of marching north. He ended with the battered Army of Northern Virginia re-crossing the Potomac two months later. In between is the detailed story of how the winning of Confederate independence on the battlefield was put out of reach forever.
Joseph E. Stevens presented a popular history of the watershed year in “1863: The Rebirth of a Nation.” Using personal letters, official documents, and rare photographs, Stevens brings a remarkable cast of characters to life. Leaders Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, James Longstreet, Joseph Hooker, and industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller are just a few of the actors on the stage. Stevens didn’t ignore the smaller than life characters, sharing the stories of soldiers and civilians, slaves and slave owners, farmers and urbanites.
The 3,000 citizens of Lawrence, Kansas managed to escape the Civil War until Quantrill’s raid on August 21, 1863. The attack began at dawn and by the time it was over, more than 150 people were dead and most of Lawrence had been burned to the ground. In “Bloody Dawn,” author Thomas Goodrich considered why William Quantrill singled out the town of Lawrence to receive his wrath, and described the retribution that followed on the heels of the massacre.
In reading about the Civil War, don’t neglect works of fiction on the subject. Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” for example, is known for its realistic battle scenes and its delving into the inner experience of the protagonist. Young Henry Fleming is worried about how he will stand up in the heat of battle. Will he remain true and fight, or will he run? Historians believe that the fictional battle portrayed in the book is based on the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Michael Shaara wrote the classic novel about Gettysburg. In “The Killer Angels,” he described the battle through the eyes of Lee, Longstreet, and others who fought there.
If you are interested in reading about the Civil War, Manhattan Public Library has the books you’re looking for.