The best books for an offbeat look at the Confederacy

William Barney Author Of Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy
By William Barney

Who am I?

From a youth devouring the books of Bruce Catton to my formative years as a historian, I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War, especially the thinking and experiences of southerners who lived through the cataclysmic war years. In my teaching and writing, I’ve tried to focus on the lived experiences, the hopes and fears, of southerners who seemingly embraced secession and an independent Southern Confederacy in the expectation of a short, victorious war only to become disenchanted when the war they thought would come to pass turned into a long, bloody stalemate. The books I’ve listed share my passion for the war and open new and often unexpected windows into the Confederate experience.


I wrote...

Book cover of Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy

What is my book about?

Regardless of whether they owned slaves, Southern whites lived in a world defined by slavery. As shown by their blaming British and Northern slave traders for saddling them with slavery, most were uncomfortable with the institution. While many wanted it ended, most were content to leave that up to God. All that changed with the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Rebels in the Making is a narrative-driven history of how and why secession occurred. In this work, senior Civil War historian William L. Barney narrates the explosion of the sectional conflict into secession and civil war. Carefully examining the events in all fifteen slave states and distinguishing the political circumstances in each, he argues that this was not a mass democratic movement but one led from above.

The books I picked & why

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Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

By Stephanie McCurry,

Book cover of Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

Why this book?

A great book for teaching me how much the wartime experiences and political resistance of the soldiers’ wives and the slaves impacted the fate of the Confederacy and pushed it in directions never imagined by the planters who created the Confederacy to serve their interests and not the majority of the population they expected to do their bidding. 

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

By Stephanie McCurry,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Confederate Reckoning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Winner of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize
Winner of the Merle Curti Award

"McCurry strips the Confederacy of myth and romance to reveal its doomed essence. Dedicated to the proposition that men were not created equal, the Confederacy had to fight a two-front war. Not only against Union armies, but also slaves and poor white women who rose in revolt across the South. Richly detailed and lucidly told, Confederate Reckoning is a fresh, bold take on the Civil War that every student of the conflict should read."
-Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic

"McCurry challenges…


The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War

By William W. Freehling,

Book cover of The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War

Why this book?

This is the best source for understanding that the Confederacy, contrary to accepted wisdom, was not the South writ large. In a fast-paced narrative Freehling identifies the anti-Confederate dissenters – free as well as enslaved – who resisted Confederate rule and undermined it from within. He shows conclusively how Union victory was aided immeasurably by the lack of unity in the Confederacy.

The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War

By William W. Freehling,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The South vs. The South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why did the Confederacy lose the Civil War? Most historians point to the larger number of Union troops, for example, or the North's greater industrial might. Now, in The South Vs. the South, one of America's leading authorities on the Civil War era offers an entirely new answer to this question.
William Freehling argues that anti-Confederate Southerners-specifically, border state whites and southern blacks-helped cost the Confederacy the war. White men in such border states as Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, Freehling points out, were divided in their loyalties-but far more joined the Union army (or simply stayed home) than marched off…


Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia

By David Williams, Teresa C. Williams, David Carlson

Book cover of Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia

Why this book?

Focusing on Georgia, this study answers the question of just what rich Confederates were doing during the Civil War. It turns out that they were not sacrificing all for the Confederate cause but pursuing their self-interests by continuing to grow cotton, speculating in goods, and finding ways to use their class position to stay out of Confederate armies. By so doing, they aroused the class resentments of the plain folk who increasingly turned against the Confederate cause.

Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia

By David Williams, Teresa C. Williams, David Carlson

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text aims to shed new light on how planter self-interest, government indifference, and the very nature of southern society produced a rising tide of dissent and disaffection among Georgia's plain folk during the Civil War.


The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience

By Emory M. Thomas,

Book cover of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience

Why this book?

Here is the best introduction to how the Confederacy transformed itself into a mirror image of the South’s traditional portrayal as a static agricultural society based on states’ rights. To meet the demands of waging the Civil War, the Confederacy underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization directed by a strong centralized bureaucracy in Richmond. New and expanded roles opened up for southern women challenging the prerogatives of male patriarchy. How many of these changes would have become permanent had the Confederacy survived is an open question, but the Confederacy decidedly was not an extension of the Old South.

The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience

By Emory M. Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The purpose of this book is to show that the Confederacy not only enacted an external revolution (in terms of its war with the Union), but that it also experienced a very significant internal revolution. Provides an explaination of what things within Southern society were revolutionized and in what ways.


Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Book cover of Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

Why this book?

Few images of the Confederacy are as enduring as that of the selfless sacrificing and unbounded enthusiasm of southern women for the Confederate cause. This groundbreaking study peels away this mythic image to reveal the conflicted feelings of elite white women as they struggled to cope with a crush of new responsibilities for which they were ill-prepared and longed for the return of their husbands and sons. The letters they sent President Davis and their men in the war registered a growing disillusionment with the Confederacy and a yearning to return to the comfort of their pre-war privileged positions.

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mothers of Invention as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Confederate men marched off to battle, southern women struggled with the new responsibilities of directing farms and plantations, providing for families, and supervising increasingly restive slaves. Drew Faust offers a compelling picture of the more than half-million women who belonged to the slaveholding families of the Confederacy during this period of acute crisis, when every part of these women's lives became vexed and uncertain.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Confederate States of America, the American Civil War, and slaves?

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