Ben Stein, host of the Emmy-winning game show Win Ben Stein’s Money (weeknights on Comedy Central) and author of Tommy and Me: The Making of a Dad (out of print), chooses six of his favorite books about the Civil War.
John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benét (Buccaneer Books, $27.95). An epic poem about the war, its leaders, its battles, causes, and lessons. Told largely through the stories of 12 main characters, it is hauntingly well-written and startlingly racist in places, but dripping with its love of place and people and way of life.
Lee’s Lieutenants by Douglas Southall Freeman (Simon & Schuster, $28). About one million words long, this book has astonishingly detailed accounts of the great battles and leaders under Robert E. Lee. Its color and telling of conversations of total gentility among generals as catastrophe emerged at Gettysburg is worth the months spent reading it.
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R.E. Lee also by Freeman (Simon Publications, $29.95). Though a bit hagiographic—it cannot say a single bad word about Lee, who made terrible mistakes at Pickett’s Charge, Malvern Hill, and elsewhere—this million-word portrait of the man whom many Americans still consider the model of what a gentleman should be inspires to this day.
Judah P. Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate by Eli Evans (out of print). A thoughtful, well-documented story of the first Jew in America to reach cabinet rank, as Secretary of War, Attorney General, and Secretary of State-all for the Confederacy. Benjamin’s amazing rise, fall, and stunning recovery as one of England’s leading barristers is a breathtaking tale of resourcefulness and brilliance.
Lee, The Last Years by Charles Flood (Houghton Mifflin Company $13.50). When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he was not arrested, imprisoned, or executed. He went home, took a long nap, and awoke to use his prestige to reintegrate the South into the union. His kindness, strength, and good humor—and the forbearance with which the victorious Union treated this dangerous Rebel—are beacons of the American character.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson (Ballantine, $16.20). Generally considered the best one-volume history of the war. Unlike Freeman, McPherson gets at the unfortunate truth that much of the South’s behavior was motivated by serious and cruel antipathy toward blacks, and extreme fear of what they would do if freed.
My two favorite books not about the Civil War are Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the greatest novel ever written, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is about the evil of the rich and the charm of ambition and longing.
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