Instead of beach reading, I prefer the air-conditioned kind -- devouring thick stacks of must-read Civil War histories -- to slide through the hot days of August.

Three recent nonfiction books by area authors qualify perfectly for air-conditioned reading. They're real page turners for Civil War enthusiasts who savor new research and the breathless delight of saying, "I didn't know that!"

The books are "Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History," by retired U.S. Naval Academy instructor Craig L. Symonds; "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies," by political historian Michael W. Kauffman; and "The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem," by Museum of the Confederacy historian and librarian John M. Coski.

Symonds, of Annapolis, rises to the top of the list because he managed to stoke my interest in naval history, a subject I have generally ignored. Although there is only one account for the Civil War, the whole book is an effortless read, presenting a natural flow of history beginning with the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 and ending with Operation Praying Mantis in 1988.

In the chapter on the Civil War and the clash of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia ironclads, Symonds is the consummate storyteller, creating powerful images.

"The dark, squat object that crept menacingly out of the Elizabeth River early on the morning of March 8, 1862, looked nothing like the elegant [sail] vessels," he writes of the Virginia. "To add to the menacing, even sinister aspect of the grotesque craft, its entire superstructure was coated with iron plate, four inches of it, bolted on top of nearly two feet of oak and pine, the rounded heads of the bolts giving its skin a knobby appearance."

Kauffman, who gives his home as Southern Maryland, has studied the Lincoln assassination for more than 30 years, and his dedication shows.

He has tracked the personal history of the many characters whose names have swirled around the assassination, including the infamous Booth, and follows them from the lead-up to the attack through the escape, the trial and the hangings.

His research has led him to conclusions that differ greatly from long-held popular beliefs. He writes that Booth did not break his leg when he jumped to the Ford's Theatre stage after shooting the president but injured it when his horse went down as he escaped through the Maryland countryside.

The idea that Booth hurt his leg in the theater comes from Booth himself, who wrote it in his diary, but none of those who saw Booth stride across the stage could confirm his claim.

In Kauffman's eyes, Mary Surratt was properly charged as a conspirator in the assassination, but Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Booth's injured leg, was not.

Kauffman's research is convincing, but, better yet, he has written all of this in a smooth and engaging narrative.

If you'd like to dazzle your friends at the next cookout with what you know about the much-misunderstood Confederate flag, Coski's book is for you.

First he covers the basics. The rectangular banner with the red background and blue St. Andrew's cross is a battle flag, not the national Confederate flag.

The flag the new nation originally adopted as its national flag looks very different. It closely resembles the Stars and Stripes and is thus known as the Stars and Bars.

The national flag was redesigned twice. The St. Andrew's cross was added to the upper left corner of subsequent versions, which were either all white or white with a large red vertical bar on the right side.

What today is often mistaken for the Confederate flag was originally a square version of the St. Andrew's Cross, also known as the Southern Cross, and was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.

That is just the beginning. From there, Coski gives a detailed account of how the battle flag, what some historians now call the Second American Flag, was adopted by fighting units in World War II and Korea to express American pride and later in the 1960s by various hate groups, which used it to symbolize white supremacy. Then it became the flag of some college football teams and has since ended up on commercially sold T-shirts and hats.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and others have lost control of a flag they revere. In the 1990s, its use on public buildings became a highly emotional issue, as one side declared it a patriotic flag representing a defeated but proud people and another side saying it symbolized nothing but hate and intimidation.

Go ahead. Bring up the subject of the flag and then stand back. But if you have Coski's book under your arm, you might be able to turn the debate into something more than just finger-pointing.

Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or

Kauffman says that Mary Surratt, left, was properly charged as a conspirator in Lincoln's murder but that Samuel Mudd, right, was not.At left, "Decision at Sea," by Craig L. Symonds of Annapolis. Above left, "American Brutus," by Michael W. Kauffman, who lives in Southern Maryland. Above right, "The Confederate Battle Flag," by historian John M. Coski.