The best books on American Civil War history that reads like literature

Lance Weller Author Of Wilderness
By Lance Weller

Who am I?

I came to Civil War studies fairly late in life but still relatively callow, by a route too roundabout to explain. But after reading James McPherson’s, Battle Cry of Freedom (there’s a bonus book!), I found I had a love of every facet of the era. The only thing I’d ever wanted to be was a writer and, as I delved deeper into the vast body of literature on the American Civil War, I finally felt as if I’d found the subject I could pour all my passion into (that and my enduring love of dogs). My novel Wilderness, along with a few novels published in French, was the result.


I wrote...

Wilderness

By Lance Weller,

Book cover of Wilderness

What is my book about?

Thirty years after the Civil War's Battle of the Wilderness left him maimed, Abel Truman has found his way to the edge of the continent, the rugged, majestic coast of Washington State, where he lives alone in a driftwood shack with his beloved dog. Wilderness is the story of Abel, now an old and ailing man, and his heroic final journey over the snowbound Olympic Mountains. It's a quest he has little hope of completing but still must undertake to settle matters of the heart that predate even the horrors of the war.

In its contrasts of light and dark and its attempts to reconcile a horrific war with the great evil it ended, Wilderness tells a story about who we are as human beings, a people, and a nation. 

The books I picked & why

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The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville

By Shelby Foote,

Book cover of The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville

Why this book?

The story of the Civil War comprises one of the most gripping narratives of American history and Shelby Foote, a great novelist, knows how tell the tale with the sort of dash and brio the subject demands. Spanning three volumes, Foote’s magisterial treatment of the era not only needs to be read by anyone interested in deepening their understanding of how America got to where it is today, it also demands to be savored by any lover of fine, singing sentences. I was lucky enough to encounter the trilogy early in my writing of my book and Foote’s wealth of anecdote really helped to flesh out the arc of my own narrative.


Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

By Allen C. Guelzo,

Book cover of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

Why this book?

Part of the enduring popularity of the Battle of Gettysburg studies, is that the battle offers a true microcosm of the American Civil War—from politics to personalities. A meeting engagement, a desperate struggle, a turning point, and human tragedy on a scale the continent had never seen before, the events of those three days in July still resonant down the years. Guelzo’s book, besides being one of the most recent, offers wonderful descriptions of every facet of the battle with finely-crafted prose and a pacing that will keep readers invested from start to finish.


Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

By Doris Kearns Goodwin,

Book cover of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Why this book?

You cannot come to grips with an understanding of American Civil War history without also coming to grips with the homespun genius of the 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln. The man and the conflict are entirely inseparable and, of the truly astonishing number of Lincoln studies available, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s narrative of the political maneuverings of Lincoln and his Cabinet is one of the very best for its breadth, insight, and understanding not just of the conflict but also of the man who has come to embody that struggle.


Grant Takes Command

By Bruce Catton,

Book cover of Grant Takes Command

Why this book?

Bruce Catton wrote extensively about the noble but ill-starred Army of the Potomac and is widely known for his wonderful trilogy recounting that army’s path through the American Civil War. With Grant Takes Command, Catton looks west for a time toward General Ulysses S. Grant and how he came east to lead all the Union armies toward eventual victory. Recounting Grant’s (and the country’s) journey from the opening of the cracker line in Chattanooga in 1863, through the Battle of the Wilderness (a subject that captured my imagination!) and the Overland Campaign and on to Appomattox Courthouse and the surrender of the Confederacy, Catton’s book moves through its narrative with a style and verve to match any piece of gripping fiction. 


Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

By Stephen W. Sears,

Book cover of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Why this book?

The American Civil War was a war and war means fighting and fighting means battles so it is no wonder that the vast bulk of Civil War histories are battle studies. The best ones fold in events and personalities beyond the reach of individual battlefields to provide a gestalt view of the era as a whole and Sears’ book is, indeed, one of the best. Much depended on Antietam—from the ongoing character of the conflict to Lincoln being emboldened enough to issue the mighty Emancipation Proclamation—and Sears deftly guides his narrative through the astonishing turns of fate and chance that resulted in a narrow Union victory General McClellan called his “masterpiece of art” (spoiler: it wasn’t).


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