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...


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. 
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fort Sumter to Perryville

Why did I love 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.

By Shelby Foote,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Fort Sumter to Perryville as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This first volume of Shelby Foote's classic narrative of the Civil War opens with Jefferson Davis’s farewell to the United Senate and ends on the bloody battlefields of Antietam and Perryville, as the full, horrible scope of America’s great war becomes clear. Exhaustively researched and masterfully written, Foote’s epic account of the Civil War unfolds like a classic novel. 
Includes maps throughout.
"Here, for a certainty, is one of the great historical narratives…a unique and brilliant achievement, one that must be firmly placed in the ranks of the masters."—Van Allen Bradley, Chicago Daily News

"A stunning book full of color,…

Book cover of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

Why did I love 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.

By Allen C. Guelzo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gettysburg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History

An Economist Best Book of the Year

A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

The Battle of Gettysburg has been written about at length and thoroughly dissected in terms of strategic importance, but never before has a book taken readers so close to the experience of the individual soldier.

Two-time Lincoln Prize winner Allen C. Guelzo shows us the face, the sights and the sounds of nineteenth-century combat: the stone walls and gunpowder clouds of Pickett’s Charge; the reason that the Army of Northern Virginia could be smelled before it…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Doris Kearns Goodwin,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Team of Rivals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most influential books of the past fifty years, Team of Rivals is Pulitzer Prize–winning author and esteemed presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s modern classic about the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, his unlikely presidency, and his cabinet of former political foes.

Winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize and the inspiration for the Oscar Award winning–film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Tony Kushner.

On May 18, 1860, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Abraham Lincoln waited in their hometowns for the results from the Republican National Convention in Chicago.…

Grant Takes Command

By Bruce Catton,

Book cover of Grant Takes Command

Why did I love 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. 

By Bruce Catton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Grant Takes Command as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Forming the second part in Grant's biography, the sequel to "Grant Moves South" follows his victory at Chattanooga and subsequent promotion to Commander-in-Chief of the Union forces. The book also provides information as to how the Civil War was won and follows Grant as he directs military operations throughout the last year of the war. The author has won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Book cover of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Why did I love 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).

By Stephen W. Sears,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Landscape Turned Red as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The best account of the Battle of Antietam” from the award-winning, national bestselling author of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville (The New York Times Book Review).

The Civil War battle waged on September 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek, Maryland, was one of the bloodiest in the nation’s history: in this single day, the war claimed nearly 23,000 casualties. In Landscape Turned Red, the renowned historian Stephen Sears draws on a remarkable cache of diaries, dispatches, and letters to recreate the vivid drama of Antietam as experienced not only by its leaders but also by its soldiers, both Union and Confederate. Combining brilliant…

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