Recently I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction in preparation for some research my students will be doing. I’m looking for good narrative nonfiction that will work well with the new common core standards that my state has adopted. Starting tomorrow, I have a group of students who are researching the Civil War, so I thought I’d prepare some booktalks for them.
Fields of Fury by James M. McPherson is a good, brief overview of the Civil War. It covers the major battles, as well as, chapters about such topics as the brothers who fought on opposite sides of the war and role of women and of African-Americans during the war. I think it works well as an introduction to the war, though it doesn’t have much depth.
United No More: Stories of the Civil War by Doreen Rappaport and Joan Veniero tells the stories of several individuals, both military and civilian. While some of the people are quite famous (Julia Ward Howe, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant), others were new to me. I especially enjoyed the story of Eugenia Phillips, who was imprisoned for laughing during the funeral procession of a Union lieutenant. The story of William H. Carney, and African-American soldier who fought in the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment was particularly interesting. The only quibble I have is that the authors chose to fictionalize parts of the book. While I think this will make the book more accessible to reluctant readers, part of me still wishes the authors had not chosen to do this.
Under Siege: Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg by Andrea Warren was my favorite of the Civil War books I read for my booktalks. One of the primary goals of the Union at the beginning of the war was to divide the Confederacy in two by controlling the Mississippi River. Union forces were able to capture Memphis, Tennessee and New Orleans, Louisiana, but as of 1863, they had not been successful in their attempt to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. Eventually they decided to surround the city and literally starve the soldiers and civilians until they surrendered. The civilians dug caves in the hillside to escape the constant shelling, and they waited for help that never came. As food ran out, they ate the horses, mules, cats and dogs and then resorted to eating any rodents they could capture. This was hard on the adults, but it was also brutal on the children. Under Siege tells the story of two children who were in Vicksburg during the time of the siege. It also tells the story of Ulysses S. Grant’s oldest son, Frederick Grant who was 12 years old at the time and was with his father during the siege. Frederick was wounded during the Battle of Vicksburg and at one time it was feared that he would lose his leg. This is a great story of survival that could generate much discussion about what it’s like to be a child and live in a warzone.
For those who like to read a more in-depth account of a specific battle, A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom by Jim Murphy is an excellent account of that battle. It would be great for students who love battle detail and strategy. Murphy (whose nonfiction books constantly amaze me) explains the motivations of both General Lee and General McClellan and is pretty condemning of McClellan’s inaction that could have led to a swifter end to the war.