Some years ago I read Steven E. Woodworth's book "Jefferson Davis and his Generals." The book was very intelligent, and narrowly focused on the strategic issues facing the Confederacy and its commanders, in this case in the "Western Theater" of the Civil War. Later he wrote a companion volume discussing the war in Virginia, and it was almost as good, if my memory is correct. I hadn't really thought about the author's overall views of the Civil War--one assumes, given that he teaches at Texas Christian University, that he's going to be some sort of neo-Confederate, especially since those first two books dealt with the Confederate Army and President. It didn't bother me much, because I've learned to discern between history and agenda history, the sort of stuff where the author starts with a conclusion and works their way back, selectively recounting that history which supports their point while ignoring or distorting everything else. When I saw this book was available, I was somewhat skeptical, as a result, because I knew this book would cover larger issues: what started the Civil War, whether the Union was guilty of war crimes while the South was innocent, and so forth. I eventually wound up with the book, and began it expecting to read the typical "South-Was-Right" Civil War history that is typical...and it turned out all of my expectations were completely wrong. It turns out this is (as far as I can tell) the clearest-eyed history of the Civil War that's been written, certainly on a level with James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," which is over twice as long.
The Civil War was about slavery. Southern apologists still try to argue that this isn't so (see the one star review of this book on this site) but in the last few years, with the advent of the internet and increasingly competent scholarship on the subject, such advocates have fewer and fewer arguments to make, and their opponents more and more. Many Civil War historians now cite South Carolina's Secession Convention, who the day after they voted to secede from the Union, wrote a manifesto explaining why. The whole thing boils down to them wanting to keep slavery legal in their state. Woodworth instead quotes Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice-President, who made a speech in 1861 asserting that racial superiority was the basis of the Confederate government, and insisting that slavery was better for all concerned, the slaves included. These documents were always there, but historians didn't use them, or didn't emphasize them as much, decades ago, largely because the South was adamant that whatever anyone said then or since, the war was about tariffs, and the slaves were at most an afterthought. They had all sorts of seemingly logical arguments ("If the war was about slavery, why did Lincoln wait until 1863 to free the slaves, and then only in the areas of the country he didn't control?") which upon further examination prove to be clever sophistry disguised as history, and are easily dismissed now that we've got enough distance from the events. Wisely, Woodworth understands this, and he's unflinching in his discussion of how the war started and who started it, and how it progressed from that beginning.
Woodworth also is very good with the events in the war itself. He's rightly admiring of Lee's tactical battlefield skills, but also very impressed with Grant's and Sherman's ability to maneuver off of the battlefield, so that they were in such a dominant position when the fighting started that victory was all but assured. He makes the point that the command structure, at the lower levels (regimental commanders, brigade commanders, etc.) crippled the Army of the Potomac's ability to fight battles for much of the war, with no one seemingly able to promote and cultivate such leaders, while the "Western" armies, especially the Army of the Tennessee, had no such difficulty, and was fearsomely skillful as a result.
I enjoyed this book a great deal, and thought the scholarship frankly unassailable. You will occasionally run into the stubborn neo-Confederate, but these days they have to ignore a *lot* of modern Civil War writing, well-sourced and strongly supported by primary documents, to still entertain their ideas. If you have anything like an open mind about the Civil War, this book is for you...if you live in the Dixie-fantasy land that has fewer citizens each year, read this at your own risk.