The best books that capture the essence of the Civil War

Nick Vulich Author Of 1861: Civil War Beginnings
By Nick Vulich

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Jeffry D. Wert

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

Why 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.


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

By Martin Dugard

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

Why 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.


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Grant

By Ron Chernow

Book cover of Grant

Why 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.


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Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever

By Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard

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

Why 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.


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Shot All to Hell

By Mark Lee Gardner

Book cover of Shot All to Hell

Why 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?


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