The best books that capture the essence of the Civil War

Why am I passionate about this?

What could be cooler to a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s than the Civil War? TV spoon-fed us westerns—Bonanza, F-Troop, The Lone Ranger, and The Wild, Wild West. Many of the stories were set during the Civil War or had characters molded by it. And then, somewhere in the mid-1960s, my parents took me to a civil war reenactment. Guns cracked. Cannons boomed, and men fell. I was hooked. I’ve devoured every Civil War book I could get my hands on for the past fifty years and watched every movie remotely connected to the subject. So, it’s only natural I wrote a book about it.


I wrote...

1861

By Nick Vulich,

Book cover of 1861

What is my book about?

It’s 1860. Military societies form throughout the south, drilling and waiting for orders to attack. The threat: Abraham Lincoln. Southerners are convinced his election means the end of life as they know it.

Lincoln has received hundreds of death threats since his election. As he travels to Washington for his inaugural, things turn deadly. Rumors say thousands of bloodthirsty Southerners intend to storm the capital, burn the public buildings, and kill the president-elect before he reaches the capital. The attack on Fort Sumter is still months off, but for Abraham Lincoln, war is imminent and real. Very real.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation

Nick Vulich Why did I love this book?

We often think about the Civil War in terms of battles, casualties, and fatalities, which isn’t surprising as war is always considered a bloody business sprinkled with death and destruction. However, many historians overlook that it wasn’t just bullets that won the war. Technological innovations changed the battlefield. For example, Samuel M. Pook teamed up with John Eads to design a new style of armored battleship—dubbed Pook’s Turtles. Just weeks after the gunboats were commissioned, they enabled Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral Andrew Hull Foote to take Forts Henry and Donelson. Later, the fleet assisted John Pope in taking Island 10 and again in the Vicksburg campaign.

Christopher Spencer developed a repeating rifle that fired seven balls in quick succession. Abraham Lincoln’s first test determined the gun was a dud. However, the second test went off without a hitch, and the war department ordered 2,000 Spencer Rifles. Many other innovations came together during the Civil War to change the face of battle forever.

By Jeffry D. Wert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Civil War Barons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before the Civil War, America had undergone a technological revolution that made large-scale industry possible, yet, except for the expanding reach of railroads and telegraph lines, the country remained largely rural, with only pockets of small manufacturing. Then the war came and woke the sleeping giant. The Civil War created a wave of unprecedented industrial growth and development, producing a revolution in new structures, ideas, and inventions that sustained the struggle and reshaped America.

Energized by the country's dormant potential and wealth of natural resources, individuals of vision, organizational talent, and capital took advantage of the opportunity war provided. Their…


Book cover of The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848

Nick Vulich Why did I love this book?

The Mexican War molded the generals who fought in it. They formed lifelong friendships that ceased for a short while during the Civil War, then resumed as soon as it was over. Clever men, like Ulysses S. Grant, remembered how their opponents acted during the Mexican War, then used that information to formulate their battle plans.

Grant was cocky and overconfident going into the Fort Donelson campaign. His experiences in Mexico told him General Pillow would play it safe and let him march up to the fort with any size force. And later, when he assumed command of all the Union armies, Grant shifted the paradigm. While most Union commanders saw Robert E. Lee as unbeatable, Grant knew he was mortal. That was the secret sauce that carried him through the Wilderness campaign.

I loved the writing style on this one. If you’re unfamiliar with Martin Dugard, he is co-author of the Killing series with Bill O’Reilly. They’re some of my favorite reads.

By Martin Dugard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For four years during the Civil War, Generals Grant and Lee clashed as bitter enemies in a war that bloodied and scorched the American landscape. Yet in an earlier time, they had worn the same uniform and fought together. In The Training Ground, acclaimed historian Martin Dugard presents the saga of how, two decades before the Civil War, a group of West Point graduates-including Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and William Tecumseh Sherman-fought together as brothers. Drawing on a range of primary sources and original research, Dugard paints a gripping narrative of the Mexican War,…


Book cover of Grant

Nick Vulich Why did I love this book?

I was fifteen the first time I went through U. S. Grant’s house in Galena, Illinois. I’ve been there two or three times since and what stands out most to me is the copies of his memoirs they have on display. One look at them, made me rush out and buy a first edition.

Papers and politicians relished telling stories about Grant’s drinking. Many people believed it, but Abraham Lincoln wasn’t fooled. He understood that Ulysses S. Grant was the indispensable man. When other generals stopped to rest on their laurels, Grant raced forward, ever-ready to fight another battle. Lincoln laughed it off when politicians demanded that he remove Grant for his fabled drunken escapades. “Tell me what brand of whiskey he drinks,” quipped Lincoln. “I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”

It was Lincoln’s way of saying he had total faith in Grant.

Hundreds of books have been published about Grant, but Chernow’s is the most readable and comprehensive look at Grant’s life.

By Ron Chernow,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times bestseller and New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017

"Eminently readable but thick with import . . . Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge." -Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow returns with a sweeping and dramatic portrait of one of our most compelling generals and presidents, Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant's life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and an inept businessman, or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War. But these stereotypes don't…


Book cover of Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever

Nick Vulich Why did I love this book?

If Abraham Lincoln had survived the war, the country might have followed an entirely different track. Rather than send carpetbaggers to rule the southern states, Lincoln planned on working with the existing rebel governments to transition them back into the Union. However, his policy toward the newly freed blacks was uncertain. Lincoln’s hope was that blacks and whites would learn to live together given time. He just hadn’t figured out how to make that happen.

What’s certain is that Andrew Johnson’s ascendancy to power derailed many of Lincoln’s plans and reversed many of the gains African-Americans had won. Johnson favored quick restoration of the southern states. At the same time, he refused to educate the freedmen and work them into society. His hope was that things would go back to the way they were before the war. Blacks would no longer be slaves but still be dependent on their former masters. Instead, Johnson’s policies tore the country apart, leaving a wound that would fester for another 150 years. A bloody struggle for civil rights erupted again in the 1950s and 1960s. And it came back to bite us again in 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd.

The Killing series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard is my favorite historical reads. They’re fast-paced, written in the present tense. It’s almost like you’re standing at the window watching the action happen. Go ahead and try it. I bet you can’t read just one.

By Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The anchor of "The O'Reilly Factor" recounts one of the most dramatic stories in American history - how one gunshot changed the country forever. In the spring of 1865, the bloody saga of America's Civil War finally comes to an end after a series of increasingly harrowing battles. President Abraham Lincoln's generous terms for Robert E. Lee's surrender are devised to fulfil Lincoln's dream of healing a divided nation, with the former Confederates allowed to reintegrate into American society. But one man and his band of murderous accomplices, perhaps reaching into the highest ranks of the U.S. government, are not…


Book cover of Shot All to Hell

Nick Vulich Why did I love this book?

One of the biggest worries as the Civil War wrapped up was that Confederate troops might disappear into the Appalachian Mountains, where they could conduct guerrilla raids with relative impunity. As a result, the war could have been extended for years, maybe even decades, as the insurgents crept out of their strongholds to conduct hit and run raids. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Pete Longstreet reminded Southerners they lost the war. It was time to get on with their lives.

Most southern veterans accepted the situation. However, a few, like Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers, couldn’t accept defeat. So they holed up in the backwoods of Missouri and fought a new kind of war using tactics they’d learned under William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.

Sound familiar? It’s the same situation that has allowed terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to form in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. We call them terrorists. But at the same time, we put American insurgents like Jesse James and John Dillinger on a pedestal—portraying them as heroes in countless books and movies. So is it any wonder terrorists exist and are nearly impossible to fight?

By Mark Lee Gardner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shot All to Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shot All to Hell by Mark Lee Gardner recounts the thrilling life of Jesse James, Frank James, the Younger brothers, and the most famous bank robbery of all time. Follow the Wild West's most celebrated gang of outlaws as they step inside Northfield's First National Bank and back out on the streets to square off with heroic citizens who risked their lives to defend justice in Minnesota. With compelling details that chronicle the two-week chase that followed-the near misses, the fateful mistakes, and the bloody final shootout on the Watonwan River, Shot All to Hell is a galloping true tale…


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American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and the American Civil War?

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Ulysses S. Grant Explore 19 books about Ulysses S. Grant
Robert E. Lee Explore 23 books about Robert E. Lee
The American Civil War Explore 301 books about the American Civil War