I'm looking for a Civil War biography of a common man/woman for undergrads

Linda Przybyszewski's picture

I assign a short biography of Abraham Lincoln in my course that covers 1848-1877, and I would like to assign a short biography of a common man or woman who lived through the war (they don't have to have survived it). So no generals, leaders or other famous folks.

It needs to be less than 250 pages and a good book for undergrads. I want to use it as an example of social history v. great man history, but I want a biography

I got such good suggestions for 1850s books, that I thought I would try you all again. I have some on my shelf, but am eager to know what has worked well for others.

Please send me any suggestions at Przybyszewski.1@nd.edu.



I'm not sure how "common" he was, but Ted Tunnell's biography of Marshall Twitchell, "Edge of the Sword: The Ordeal of Carpetbagger Marshall H. Twitchell in the Civil War and Reconstruction"(LSU Press, 2004) is fantastic, although the heart of the book centers on his experience as a Freedman's Bureau official in Louisiana during Reconstruction.


I recommend another another LSU book, Michael D. Pierson's new _Lt. Spalding in Civil War Louisiana:
A Union Officer's Humor, Privilege, and Ambition_ (LSU 2016). It is short (under 208 pages), funny and has a lot nuance covering different aspects of the Civil War era, particularly social and gender history. Undergrads will like it.

Well, there is always Sam Watkins’ very readable and very graphic Co. Aytch. I might also suggest Berry Benson’s rather vainglorious but well-written memoir.

Randal Allred

Thanks to everyone for posting or sending my recommendations. I appreciate it!

The problem with a biography of a "common man or woman" is that the materials to support a full biography for such average folk rarely exist in any comprehensive or coherent form to support a full life story.  Instead, we have thousands of snippets, which is one reason why IMHO community studies or collective biographies offer something consistent for students to grasp and interpret.

Glenn M. Linden and Thomas J. Pressley, Voices from the House Divided: The United States Civil War as Personal Experience (Thomson, 2006)  deals with the problem through a trove of diaries and letters.

Or, the students can do the piecework themselves if you have access to Alexander Street's The American Civil War: Diaries and Letters.  Although its search facility has real limitations, the database contains full text of major diaries and first-hand accounts, along with civilian memoirs and other personal ephemera.  I've used it successfully in a civil war course and the exercise gives students some control over what they find and how they interpret it.

From the collection description:

The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries knits together more than 1,000 sources of diaries, letters, and memoirs to provide fast access to thousands of views on almost every aspect of the war, including what was happening at home. The writings of politicians, generals, slaves, landowners, farmers, seaman, wives, and even spies are included. The letters and diaries are by the famous and the unknown, giving not only both the Northern and Southern perspectives, but those of foreign observers also. The materials originate from all regions of the country and are from people who played a variety of roles.

Using a thesaurus of Civil War terms we've built specifically for the task, researchers can quickly find references to individuals, battles, theaters of war, and activities. A chronology of key events allows the user to see multiple perspectives surrounding a particular event. This level of indexing is unprecedented. Questions such as "Give me all accounts of letters written about hospital conditions by Union soldiers in the Western Theater" can be answered in seconds.

The collection includes approximately 100,000 pages of published memoirs, letters and diaries from individuals plus 4,000 pages of previously unpublished materials. Drawn from more than 1,000 sources, the collection provides in-depth coverage of all aspects of the war. More than 1,000 biographies will enhance the use of the database.

The collection includes one of the most comprehensive bibliographies of Civil War letters and diaries yet published. It lists over 1,000 published and unpublished items from a variety of sources, including online resources and microform. Subscribers to the collection are encouraged to participate in the maintenance of this bibliography by calling our attention to omissions, suggesting additions, and notifying us of newly discovered materials.

Peter Knupfer, Michigan State University