Brian Craig Miller: “Civil War America” and a Side of Tomato Soup

We welcome to the blog a guest post from Brain Craig Miller, Civil War historian and author of recently published Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South 

In today’s post, Miller reflects on the Civil War America series and how it shaped his views of the Civil War. 


Cover of Gettysburg: the Second Day, by Harry W. Pfanz

It was the morning prior to battle. I knew that the engagement for the day was to take place in the Peach Orchard. Well, it was the family orchard with a few peach trees that would stand in for the famed grove of trees at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—it really was more of a peach/apple/cherry/nectarine/pear/plum orchard (call us the Jamba Juice of northeastern Pennsylvania). I knew that if I wanted to gain the upper hand against my foe in battle, my brother, who would be a Union soldier, then I needed to read a little bit about Confederate strategy at Gettysburg on July 2. On a recent trip to the famed battlefield, I had purchased Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day. I had been reading the book ever since I got back (#civilwarnerd) and could not wait to utilize the knowledge I had gained in our re-enactment of the battle. As my Confederate line stood ready to advance (well, me) towards the Union line (my brother) through the peach/apple/cherry/nectarine/pear/plum trees, the battle took some unexpected turns. First, my brother furnished his Rambo sword and duct taped it to his musket to engage in a bayonet charge. Second, we decided to have a cavalry sword fight (no horses, just the family German shepherd Brandy, whom sailors did think was a fine girl, who seemed completely disinterested in the military affairs surrounding her). Third, the battle ceased when a call came for a hearty lunch of grilled cheese and tomato soup (no hardtack here—#farbs). Little did I know that reading Pfanz’s exploration of Gettysburg would only be the first of many superb titles that I would digest in the University of North Carolina Press’s Civil War America series.

The series has been massive, with over 110 titles published over the course of a few decades. Under the watchful eye of series founder and editor Gary W. Gallagher, who has recently turned the series over to Peter Carmichael, Caroline Janney, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean, the books published racked up over sixty-five book prizes and awards, including several Lincoln Prizes, and others issued by the Organization of American Historians, Society of Civil War Historians, Museum of the Confederacy, and the Southern Historical Association, just to name a few. Not only has the series been large and award-winning, it has also had a major impact on how I think about the Civil War. When I asked for an entire list of all of the titles in the series, I was stunned to realize that I own 75 titles in the series (you are welcome, UNC Press). I had used these books in a number of ways, from generating lecture fodder that entertains millennials between tweets and chatting at a snap, to becoming major players in how I think about memory, gender, medicine, and the larger significance of the war. Sure, Walt Whitman quipped that “the real war will never get in the books.” Yet I think this series certainly would cause Whitman to rethink his famous assertion (or have him accuse me of inflicting him with a micro aggression).

Cover of Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee's Gallant General, by Gary W. Gallagher

So in order to get some additional insights into the series, I asked Gary Gallagher about how this whole thing got started. Thankfully, the snow from Winter Storm Jonas Brothers had not destroyed his internet connection and he graciously offered some insights. It all started with a mouse (oh wait, that’s Walt Disney). It all started with Stephen Dodson Ramseur. Gallagher published the biography with UNC in 1984 and it marked their first Civil War title for the press since the Kennedy administration. When the Ramseur biography did well, the press director at the time, Matthew Hodgson, solicited Gary’s help in seeking other potential Civil War titles. The books purposefully cast a wide net that covered military, social, cultural, and political aspects of the Civil War era. The series drew authors from the academy but also from the esteemed ranks of the National Park Service, lawyers, and professional writers (thus, several who are not hanging out in the ivory towers of college football U). Thus, by the early 1990s, the series was born and produced more than enough volumes to make it worthy of a reality show on the Learning Channel. The series has continued forward, even while acquisition editors at the press have changed a few times in the last thirty years. I fondly hope and fervently pray that it goes on for another thirty years and beyond (I always get excited when UNC puts out a new catalog, to see what is next in Civil War studies #supercivilwarnerd).

For me, the real strength of the series has been Gallagher’s ability to refashion how we think about the Civil War and its key players and events. In particular, the series has produced some solid biographies, from Lesley Gordon’s excellent examination of George Pickett (through the eyes of his wife, LaSalle, who would do Tammy Wynette proud) to Joan Waugh’s innovative examination of Ulysses S. Grant, that acted like many a Los Angeles restaurant and fused important elements together (history, myth, memory) into one tasty dish. Additionally, the series has ushered in an important strain of examinations of memory, including Carol Reardon’s thoughtful book on Pickett’s Charge (another favorite engagement for my brother and me) that made me want to study memory (and the series has churned out several great titles on memory from Nina Silber, Joan Waugh, Alice Fahs, Carrie Janney, and Anne Sarah Rubin). The recent work on veterans, from Barbara Gannon’s The Won Cause to Jim Marten’s Sing Not War, has been crucial in framing my own thinking about how a war that produced so much chaos and destruction left behind so many people who had to figure out what it all meant (or if they even cared what it meant).

Cover of Reluctant Rebels: the Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861, by Kenneth W. Noe

The series continues to offer thoughtful military campaign examinations, from the multi-volume trench warfare series from prolific writer Earl Hess to indispensable studies of Iuka, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Andersonville, and everywhere in-between. In volume after volume, the series has produced important benchmarks that are inspiring a future generation of scholars wanting to study medicine, family dynamics, guerrilla warfare, and the sometimes often-overlooked soldiers (as Ken Noe did in his superb Reluctant Rebels, which looked at the guys who got into the war months/years after a fortification in Charleston Harbor entered the history books). At the same time, they have created ample room for growth, ensuring that Civil War studies remain a vibrant and cutting-edge field. This series has literally become a standard for footnoting—in fact, I propose we now say: For more on the Civil War and x, see Civil War America.

Although my military service years have passed, and I am now a graying and slightly disillusioned veteran of my Civil War battles with my brother and sister in the backyard, I cannot help but think back to the many titles from UNC Press that sit on my bookshelves behind stuffed versions of Winnie-the-Pooh and Mr. Peabody. Although they did not help my Confederate soldier win any battle, let alone the war at Mountain Spring Christmas Tree Farm, they have become an integral part of my heart that loves the Civil War and my head that loves to think about the Civil War. I encourage you to toast a grilled cheese (Swiss, Provolone, Cheddar Jack combo), make a can of that nationally known Tomato Soup (but use milk over water and add some fresh basil leaves, a pinch of sea salt, a dusting of real parmesan cheese), and pull up a good book in the Civil War America series. You can’t go wrong!

Brian Craig Miller is associate professor and associate chair of history at Emporia State University. He edits the journal Civil War History, co-edits the series The Civil War Era in the South (with LeeAnn Whites), and recently published Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2015). He is currently in Los Angeles, California, on a Mellon Fellowship with the Henry Huntington Library, where he is researching the United Confederate Veterans and writing a book about Walt Disney and Civil War Memory.