The best books with accounts of the Civil War from people who were there

Chandra Manning Author Of What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War
By Chandra Manning

Who am I?

Despite what my kids think, I am not actually old enough to have “been there” during the Civil War itself, but I have spent my entire professional career studying it. Years in archives reading other people’s mail, old newspaper accounts, dusty diaries, and handwritten testimonies, along with sifting through records books and ledgers of all descriptions have taught me exactly how intertwined slavery, Civil War, and emancipation all were, and I am dedicated to trying to explain the connections to anyone who reads my books, stumbles across my digital history work, or sits in my classroom at Georgetown University, where I teach history. Two good places to see the results of my efforts include What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War which won the Avery Craven Award for best book on the Civil War and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize and Frederick Douglass Prize, and Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, which won the Jefferson Davis Prize and was also a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.

I wrote...

What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War

By Chandra Manning,

Book cover of What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War

What is my book about?

In this unprecedented account, Chandra Manning uses letters, diaries, and regimental newspapers to take the reader inside the minds of Civil War soldiers-black and white, Northern and Southern-as they fought and marched across a divided country. With stunning poise and narrative verve, Manning explores how the Union and Confederate soldiers came to identify slavery as the central issue of the war and what that meant for a tumultuous nation. This is a brilliant and eye-opening debut and an invaluable addition to our understanding of the Civil War as it has never been rendered before.

The books I picked & why

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Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

By Charles B. Dew,

Book cover of Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

Why this book?

In Apostles of Disunion, Confederates explain secession in their own words. Immediately after the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, seven states seceded from the Union, but several other states elected not to, at least not yet. Among those states were Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, states that would be vital to the viability of a Confederate nation. Agents from the states that had seceded traveled to pivotal swing states to make the case for secession. The agents were called secession commissioners, and Apostles of Disunion gathers together exactly what they said. It is a book of white Southerners talking to white Southerners about the reasons for secession and for a new Confederate nation. . . reasons that ultimately proved compelling enough for Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia to join the Confederate States. This book is by far the best one-stop-shop for answering the question Why?

Union Must Stand: Civil War Diaries John Quincy Adams Campbell

By Mark Grimsley,

Book cover of Union Must Stand: Civil War Diaries John Quincy Adams Campbell

Why this book?

A soldier in an Iowa infantry regiment, John Quincy Adams Campbell spent the conflict in the war’s western theater, present at, among other things, the fall of Vicksburg on July 4,1863, which even at the time he recognized as a turning point of the war. His diary, interlaced with some letters that he wrote to his hometown during the war, comments incisively on the military progress of war in the Mississippi Valley from the perspective of one infantrymen, offering today’s readers insights into the immediacy and also the limits of the view of one person actually living through the alternating boredom of camp life and terror of battle. Campbell also commented astutely on social conditions, on the motivations of his fellow soldiers and of the populations they met in the South, and on all that he saw at stake in the war. His first-hand account offers sharp insight into the reality of slavery as Union soldiers encountered it and as a central factor in the war, while also making clear that ideas about slavery and ideas about race were two very different things among most white Union soldiers. Many collections of Civil War soldiers’ letters and diaries exist, but this one is among the best.

Hospital Sketches

By Louisa May Alcott,

Book cover of Hospital Sketches

Why this book?

Disease killed far more Civil War soldiers than battle did, and the single greatest determinant of survival was nurses. Before she went on to fame as an author, Louisa May Alcott served as just such a Civil War nurse. When war came, Alcott itched for a way to do her part and headed South with eager enthusiasm, which did not disappear but which did run headlong into the tragedy and suffering of war. Alcott herself fell dangerously ill and had to return home before the war’s conclusion. Naming herself “Tribulation Periwinkle,” she then wrote this account, detailing her real-life experiences in the hospital ward with humor and self-deprecation, but also with unflinching testimony about the costs of war.

The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers

By Joseph M Thomas, Scott Korb, Jean Fagan Yellin

Book cover of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers

Why this book?

As the Union Army penetrated into Confederate territory, enslaved men, women, and children fled bondage to take refuge with the army. Roughly half a million formerly enslaved people exited slavery in this way, spending the war in encampments appended to the army or in Union occupied cities. They influenced the progress and outcome of the war as well as emancipation. They also encountered conditions that amounted to a humanitarian crisis, one that soldiers tasked with fighting a war were ill-equipped to meet. Civilians from the North made their way to camps and occupied cities to serve as relief workers. Harriet Jacobs headed South as just such a worker. Jacobs herself had been born a slave and made a harrowing escape decades earlier, but when war broke out, she braved the South again. She made her way to Alexandria, Virginia where she worked among the many freedom seekers who came to that city. While Jacob’s voluminous letters and those of her family are best known for telling the dramatic story of her own life, they also bear witness to the grueling, heartbreaking, inspiring, and courageous story of formerly enslaved men, women, and children in Union-occupied Alexandria.

Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868

By John Q. Anderson,

Book cover of Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868

Why this book?

Kate Stone was 20 years old when the Civil War came, living as a cherished daughter in a large, loving, wealthy Louisiana family headed by her indomitable widowed mother. The war up-ended Kate’s world. Beloved brothers joined the Confederate Army. First luxuries and then necessities dried up. Union forces helped themselves to Kate’s favorite horse. Neighbors and relations died or left. Eventually Kate and her family did, too, “refugeeing” to Texas where they did not always mingle smoothly with the locals. Meanwhile, the same forces that shattered Kate’s world opened the doors to a new one for the many enslaved people on whom Kate and her family relied. Kate’s marvelously eloquent diary offers readers a front-row seat into the drama of the Confederate homefront as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood experienced it, and from the corner of the reader’s eye, we also see glimpses of enslaved people helping to hasten the end of slavery.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, slaves, and Louisiana?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, slaves, and Louisiana.

The American Civil War Explore 200 books about the American Civil War
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Women at the Front, With Courage and Delicacy, and Reminiscences of My Life in Camp if you like this list.