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4.7 out of 5 stars102
4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 25 August 2002
I read this book around 8 years ago, and my opinion hasn't changed: if you're only going to read one book on the American civil war make it this one!
Mr McPherson's achievement is nothing short of miraculous, he encapsulates every aspect of the civil war from the political and social factors to the personalities involved, and some tremendous military details, the descriptions of the battles are so engrossing you can almost smell the gunpowder wafting off the pages. It's remarkable that he can cram so much detail into 900 or so pages and make it all so absorbing and readable.
But what really sets this great work apart in my opinion are two things:
1. The wealth of first hand accounts, from contemporaneous letters of all the soldiers private to the most famous generals, politicians and ordinary members of the public. These all contribute to make the war seem far more alive and real, it may have happened 140 years ago but when reading this book you'll sometimes feel like it happened yesterday.
2. The wealth of fascinating little details that puts the history into context, I quote a typical example "The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944", I just plucked that one at random from my well thumbed copy here.
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on 5 January 2010
As a non-American reader, who knew precious little about the Civil War, I wasn't especially keen to read this book. But it was a truly enlightening experience, bringing a personal dimension to the key players at Gettysburg so effectively that I will never forget any of them. Riveting stuff. How well and absorbingly this is written. If you haven't read it, you are in for a real experience.
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on 28 August 2006
This is one of the finest historical volumes I have ever read on any subject. McPherson's strengths are are threefold: firstly his research is astonishing in its detail and expertly referenced, secondly he writes with wonderful clarity and linguistic dexterity, and thirdly he remains passionately impartial about his subject. The only weakness I can think of in this superb work is the extremely poor quality of the maps and diagrams some of which are nearly illegible, responsibility for which rests with the publisher (Penguin). Those seeking an easy read focusing primarily on the famous battles of the Civil War might be better off looking elsewhere (such as the Osprey volume "The American Civil War"), because while McPherson does cover military matters extensively, he is at least if not more concerned with an analysis of the political and social climate surrounding them and in this respect his book must surely stand out as an astonishingly well researched and scholarly work. Which is not to say that this book is anything other than a compelling read - despite the wealth and density of detail, Macpherson writes with elan and lucidity for over 850 brilliant pages. Thoroughly recommended, even if you will need at least a week of solid reading to get through it!
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This book - probably the best one-volume Civil War history - is more than a simple survey: it is a very strong literary work as well, beautifully written and balanced. For all 900 or so pages, I was completely absorbed. Never once did I glumly look at the last page and calculate the percentage of the book that remained. It is the ideal starting point for anyone wishing to investigate the most disturbing episode of American history, a stepping off point that is also a pleasure to read. Afterall, what other survey histories won the Pulitzer prize?

However, as a broad-brush history, I found myself quibbling with the author's choice of detail in the areas that I knew well. For example, I would have liked to see more coverage of the brutal race riots that occured in the Northern states, incidents that revealed extremely disturbing fault lines in race relations that persist to this day. By choosing to neglect this and other details, I felt that the author refrained from contemplating the deeper meaning of the war, even or providing the building blocks to do so. While interpretation is certainly not his primary task in a survey, it does get short shrift here.

Nonetheless, every American should read this book.
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on 31 May 1999
James McPherson has done an outstanding job of condensing the story of American Civil War into 900 just pages. The book details not just the war itself, but the crucial events that led the South to cesession. As the author uses a narrative style throughout, the book is easy to read and is in no way dry, as many historical accounts can be. I knew virtually nothing about the American Civil War before I read this book but now I can tell my Butternuts from my Copperheads with no problem. If you are looking for an introductory work on the American Civil War look no further. This is it.
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on 13 March 2012
Overall, an excellent book. The prose is crisp and really manages to synthesise so many aspects of the conflict into a rolling narrative. It's likely you will find yourself reading in 100 page plus chunks, which is pretty good going for subject material which could have been on the dry, academic side (I wish David Glantz would take note!). This book works even better (in my humble opinion) if you read as a companion to Ken Burns' "The Civil War" film documentary.

A few criticisms, however - the battle / campaign maps are UTTERLY useless - I don't think I have seen worse - minute, font size must be about 0.5, black, dark grey and slightly less grey symbols on a (you guessed it) grey background is not going to help anyone. Some of the tiny maps compound this by having even smaller map inserts. I know there's not a lot you can do with A5 sized books, but currently reading Manstein by Mungo Melvin, who manages to have clear, legible colour campaign maps in a book the same size.

It may be a complaint which a lot of US readers wouldn't have, but a larger scale map showing how the cities, rivers, states and valleys actually sit with each other in terms of overall geography would have been really useful, but I suppose you could just say "buy an atlas!".

Might be a bit on the niggly side, but the paper quality is really poor, too.

The text alone easily merits 5 stars. The presentation (which I am guessing isn't really down to the author) is pretty ropey.
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on 6 June 2004
As a visitor to the USA, I was surprised at how much Civil War literature there is. However, it should be remembered that more Americans died in that war than in all other wars in which Americans have ever fought put together, and its effects on the USA linger to this day. Moreover, it was the first modern war and the shape of the First World War could be discerned for anyone willing to look. For an introduction to the Civil War, I find it hard to believe that this volume could be bettered. Not just a battle by battle account, it sets the scene of the preceding years, with the issue of slavery like the viper in the bosom of the USA right from its inception and the rise of the Republican Party and its first president Abraham Lincoln with its mildly abolitioinist platform (the Republican Party has fallen a long way since then!). The language is crisp and clear and the whole thing flows easily and comprehensibly in a style of which many novelists would be envious. If you want a good one-volume overview of this critical episode in the history of the world, look no further.
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I came to this book as a Brit who knew little or nothing about the American Civil War and it certainly did its job for me. The wealth of detail is facinating, the analysis of the reasons for the war illuminating and the conclusions explaining the victory of the North are coherent and convincing.

I came to a realistion of how important the American Civil War was. How different the world would be today had the South prevailed.

It also depressing how little we seem to progress, for example in terms of atrocities committed, how different was the American Civil war to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

Two complaints were 1) I found the temporal progress of the war a little difficult to follow at times, i.e. which events were occurring simultaneously and 2) in my paperback edition the maps are basically unreadable.

One piece of advice for non-US readers, make sure you have a detailed map of the US to hand while reading.

Definitely recommended
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on 7 July 2011
Not only one of the best books on the US Civil War I've read; not only one of the best books of history I've read, but one of the best books I've read. Excellent in every way, from every angle, from whatever viewpoint you begin with. If you have any interest in the subject, read this; if you have a deep interest in the subject, read this; if you like history, read this. In fact if you like books, read this. Wonderful.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 December 2013
I read this book first in 1991 and recently I had the pleasure to read it again - and I liked it very much, both times.

This is possibly the most complete book about War Between States amongst those which can be published in just one volume. It goes "ab ovo usque ad mala", progressing chronogically from the analysis of the causes of the war through the conflict itself until the conclusion and consequences. It is very much to the point, without useless digressions and with analysis kept strictly under control, appropriately offered only when needed and even then not allowed to break too much the narration. At 924 pages (hardback edition) it is a HUGE thing, but reading it is more than easy - it is a pleasure! Therefore its size notwithstanding this book can be ingested and digested quite fast and smoothly. For its great quality its author very deservedly received the Pulitzer Prize.

James M. McPherson is a left-winged person and at different occasions he actually spoke very strong against the South and especially against contemporary people and organisations perpetuating and defending the memory of Confederacy - and yet in this book he actually makes a great effort of objectivity, as great as it is humanly possible for a Yankee left-winged intellectual...))) He certainly avoids however to press too much the point of incredible sauvagery with which Sherman ravaged Georgia, with full approval of the president of the USA himself, as it could stain a little Lincoln's reputation...

Amongst the strongest points of this book is the demonstration, that even after Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Chattanooga 1863 campaigns turned very badly for the South, the war was still not definitely lost for the CSA as the later bloodbaths during the Wilderness Campaign in 1864 caused the great strengthening of peace movement in the Union and weakened Lincoln's position before the November 1864 elections. It was therefore the Atlanta Campaign and the capture of the city by Sherman on 2 September 1864 which proved the most crucially important moment in the war as they allowed Lincoln to win the elections - after which there was no more hope for the South...

This is a GREAT book, certainly showing here and there some little bias against the Confederacy and trying to protect Lincoln - but nevertheless trying to stay objective. Definitely one of the best reads amongst the hundreds and hundreds of history books I read. A book to buy, read, keep and transmit to the children. Enjoy!
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