The best books on the American Civil War from a popular historian

Fergus M. Bordewich Author Of Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America
By Fergus M. Bordewich

The Books I Picked & Why

For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

By James M. McPherson

Book cover of For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

Why this book?

Men enlisted to fight in the Civil War for many reasons: impulsive patriotism, peer pressure, politics – abolitionism, the salvation of the Union, the defense of slavery – or, at least for some, an enlistment bonus or just the need of a job. But what kept them fighting year after year once the initial excitement wore off, in the industrial killing fields of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg and Cold Harbor? McPherson offers the most insightful answer I know to this knotty question in this surprising, often inspiring, and poignant book based heavily on the words of soldiers themselves in letters written to family and friends during the war.

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By Ron Chernow

Book cover of Grant

Why this book?

There are innumerable biographies of Civil War leaders. Two fine recent ones have been Sherman: Scourge of War, by Brian Holden Reid, and Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters. But Chernow’s “Grant” is in a class by itself for its combination of scholarship and terrific readability. After generations of comparative neglect, Chernow has recovered the Union’s paramount general and less successful postwar president from the demolition of his reputation following Reconstruction. He bursts apart the myths of Grant’s alleged mediocrity, incompetence, and uncontrolled alcoholism to reveal in brisk and vivid prose the talented, humane, and complex man that lay beneath.  

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Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

By Allen Guelzo

Book cover of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

Why this book?

Accounts of individual battles are also abundant, none more than the 1863 battle of Gettysburg, which was the symbolic if not the strategic turning point of the Civil War. Guelzo, a historian who taught for many years at Gettysburg College, not only brings the battle to life in this vivid, dramatic, cliff-hanging account of the epic three-day battle. He also brings to it a scholar’s precision, wise and original assessments of the leading protagonists, and a sophisticated, multi-level grasp of campaign strategy. His intimate personal familiarity with the battlefield itself often makes the very landscape feel like an active participant in the battle. Even readers already familiar with the battle will feel that they never fully knew its story before.

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1861: The Civil War Awakening

By Adam Goodheart

Book cover of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

Why this book?

The outbreak of the Civil War was not a single event as simple as the firing on Fort Sumter or reducible to a clear clash of ideologies. In this erudite yet intensely readable book, Goodheart captures with equal brio the grand sweep of events and the maneuvering of political men South and North, and – most compellingly of all – the dawning of the war in the lives of men and women both famous and unknown, from New England Transcendentalists, to the fiery abolitionist orator Abbey Kelley, to the wily lawyer-turned-soldier Benjamin Butler, whose clever legal maneuver early in the war opened to door to the northward hemorrhaging of tens of thousands of black slaves.

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River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War

By Andrew Ward

Book cover of River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War

Why this book?

More than 170,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and navy during the Civil War. From 1863 on, they performed heroically on many battlefields, most famously at the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, as dramatically depicted in the film “Glory.” Much less well-known was the deliberate slaughter of nearly two hundred black federal troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864, by Confederate forces led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a prewar slaver trader and a postwar leader of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the worst wartime atrocity committed on U.S. soil outside the Indian wars. What happened at Fort Pillow demonstrated the additional risk that every black soldier in blue faced: not just injury, but murder or reenslavement by the enemy. Ward’s account moves at a pounding pace. More than the account of a single battle, it places the role of black troops in the larger context of the war that led to the destruction of slavery.

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