As an active writer and student in the Civil War community, my bookshelf is many things to me: a tool, an escape, and an obsession. The focus of my work over the past 20 years has been to understand the war as it was fought in the ranks, so while I do have a collection of biographies and autobiographies of the leading generals of the war, I rarely use them. Like everyone's bookshelf, mine is very much an extension of my interests: almost entirely Army-based, heavily Western Theater, heavily Ohio-based personal narratives and regimental histories, and almost exclusively infantry.
The Civil War book collection isn't on one shelf, it (to my wife's chagrin) stretches across two rooms of the first floor of the house and a shelf in the basement. I suppose that is true for most of us Civil War buffs who can't resist adding one more title to our collections. Looking at the collection from the standpoint of what is it, I find one shelf devoted to the Eastern Theater (and nothing later than Gettysburg), a shelf and half devoted to Western Theater campaigns, a half shelf of Army of the Cumberland and Army of Tennessee materials; two small shelves of non-Ohio memoirs and regimentals, two large shelves of Ohio regimental histories and memoirs, a half shelf of "rares" (first edition books from the 19th century), and a two full shelves of references, the most valuable of which is the Index to the National Tribune I purchased from Savas Beatie a year or so ago. If I' don't use that index once a week, its twice a week or more- an absolutely crucial resource for what I like to study.
So how do I keep it organized? For the Eastern and Western theater campaign books, they are organized in chronological order. The regimental histories are in order of regimental number (1st to 144th Ohio) and by state. The reference material is organized by army (Union or Confederate), or by series (Generals in Blue/Generals in Gray), and the Time/Life series on the Civil War organized in chronological order; this series remains a favorite if anything just to soak in the period photography, uniforms, and equipment.
So how do I use it? Well, many of you are familiar with my blog (Dan Masters' Civil War Chronicles), the thrust of which is to feature personal accounts from the ranks to explain and describe various Civil War battles. With that focus, I rely on my library heavily as either primary source material or references to answer questions that might come up with writing. So in this respect, the collection is a tool used to create new content for the blog or to bolster a writing project. But its also an escape: the past two years have been very challenging ones for my family, and being able to escape into the 19th century for a hour at night after the day's stresses are past, dive into a book, and appreciate the stories of how our forebears overcame the supreme struggle of their time has been a source of inspiration. But its also an obsession: I am a collector, so when I'm collecting something, I'm always interested in getting all of something. Its not an obsession to just possess the book, though, its an obsession to what to understand what it is the author is trying to tell us, that enduring thirst for knowledge. If there's one thing I've learned in Civil War research, its that the more you think you know, the more there is to learn. Its such a complicated and deeply interwoven subject to touched every facet of 19th century society that its a source of both frustration and inspiration that none of us will ever "get it all." But it is endlessly fascinating.
To explain how I've acquired these books all over the years would make for tedious reading. Whenever I attend a Civil War reenactment, or visit a county museum (a great source for obscure memoirs and regimental accounts), or a national battlefield, I make it point to browse through the bookstore and am constantly on the lookout for new books to add to the collection. I've also had some good success at bookstores that cater to the secondary book market. I've picked up quite a few volumes through Amazon, and of course, eBay. I've also received quite a few books as gifts from family and friends; one friend passed along their deceased father's collection of bound copies of the first 10 years of Civil War Times Illustrated. "We knew that you'd be interested in these," she said, and right she was. The complete Time/Life Civil War series was a gift from another friend. People seem to know that I'm a Civil War buff so a fair amount of books head my way. And hence, the storage problem...
The most treasured books on my shelf are ones in which I have signed by the author and in which I had a chance to meet them: Peter Cozzen's No Better Place to Die being one of my favorites and Rick Baumgartner's Buckeye Blood at Gettysburg being another. I used to run into Rick each year at the Civil War reenactment at Jackson, Michigan and always enjoyed visiting with him and discussing book-making and research. He was a fountain of knowledge and very encouraging to a young author.
So what makes me pop open the wallet? An Ohio regimental history or memoir from an infantry unit in the Army of the Cumberland will get me every time; they are my kryptonite, something which I cannot resist. Anything Stones River related; I think I have every book written on that battle and campaign but am always on the lookout for something new. Another thing I'm always looking out for- anything that I have a family connection to, so a memoir from someone who served in one of my ancestor's regiments always gets my attention and usually ends up on my shelf.
Which shelf is my favorite? My Ohio regimentals and memoirs shelf for sure, although the western theater campaign shelf also commands a lot of my attention. Among the favorites on that shelf are Wilbur Hinman's The Sherman Brigade, Alexis Cope's The 15th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Albion Tourgee's The Story of a Thousand (105th OVI), and (even though I wrote it and might be biased), I really enjoy re-reading Army Life According to Arbaw which features letters from William A. Brand of the 66th Ohio. Among my western theater campaign titles, Peter Cozzens trilogy (Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga campaigns) plus his volume on Corinth remain favorites, Kenneth Noe's volume on Perryville is another favorite, as is Gerald Prokopowicz's work All for the Regiment.