The best books on the Civil War era that merit attention

Gary W. Gallagher Author Of The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis
By Gary W. Gallagher

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the era of the American Civil War since I was ten years old at the beginning of the conflict’s centennial. I have taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Penn State University, and the University of Virginia. I have written, co-written, or edited more than 40 books on the subject. The compelling personalities, dramatic events, and profoundly important issues at stake compel my continuing attention to the war, its antecedents, and its short- and long-term impact. I recommend five classic titles on the Civil War era (one a trilogy, one a two-volume set, and three single volumes) that will reward readers in the third decade of the 21st Century.


I wrote...

The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis

By Gary W. Gallagher,

Book cover of The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis

What is my book about?

This book explores many aspects of the Civil War, including how its memory has evolved over many decades. It places our contemporary understanding of the Civil War, both popular and academic, in conversation with testimony from people in the United States and the Confederacy who experienced and described it. Put another way, the book investigates how mid-19th-century perceptions align with, or deviate from, some of those we now hold regarding the origins, conduct, and aftermath of the war.

The books I picked & why

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Mr. Lincoln's Army

By Bruce Catton,

Book cover of Mr. Lincoln's Army

Why this book?

Bruce Catton introduced untold readers from the early 1950s through the 1970s to the Civil War. His Army of the Potomac Trilogy—Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), and A Stillness at Appomattox (1953; winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History)—provided a compelling narrative of the most important Union army’s soldiers and officers. Catton excelled at creating incisive biographical portraits of figures such as George B. McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as at evoking the attitudes and experiences of soldiers in the ranks. The trilogy also seamlessly connected events on the battlefield to politics and social developments, a crucial factor in telling the story of how a democratic republic waged a transformative military conflict.

Mr. Lincoln's Army

By Bruce Catton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…


Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

By W.E.B. Du Bois,

Book cover of Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

Why this book?

W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing interpretation about the post-Civil War years. Put forward in cinematic form by The Birth of a Nation (1915), that interpretation cast Reconstruction as a dark time when carpetbaggers, scalawags, and their recently freed African American allies ran roughshod over a prostrate white South struggling to recover from the Civil War. Du Bois treated enslaved people during the war and freedpeople in its aftermath as important actors, rather than as passive pawns, in the political, military, and economic struggles of the era. In doing so, he anticipated scholarship from revisionist studies in the 1960s down to the present. Anyone familiar with Henry Louis Gates’s Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, first aired on PBS stations in 2019, would find many similarities between that documentary and Du Bois’s 750-page masterwork.

Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

By W.E.B. Du Bois,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

W. E. B. Du Bois was a public intellectual, sociologist, and activist on behalf of the African American community. He profoundly shaped black political culture in the United States through his founding role in the NAACP, as well as internationally through the Pan-African movement. Du Bois's sociological and historical research on African-American communities and culture broke ground in many areas, including the history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Du
Bois was also a prolific author of novels, autobiographical accounts, innumerable editorials and journalistic pieces, and several works of history.

Black Reconstruction in America tells and interprets the story of…


The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861

By David M. Potter,

Book cover of The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861

Why this book?

David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976; winner of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for History) remains, after nearly half-a-century, the best narrative on the coming of the Civil War. It brims with perceptive analysis and very usefully instructs readers about history’s vexing complications. Completed after Potter’s death by his colleague at Stanford Don E. Fehrenbacher, the engaging text forcefully reminds readers to keep in mind the contingent nature of politics and to avoid assuming events had to play out as they did. Part of the period’s complexity lay in the fact that although the crisis of 1860-1861 had everything to do with slavery’s powerful influence over American political affairs, the increasingly heated rhetoric of the secession winter did not focus on whether the nation would keep or jettison the institution. Four years of war answered that fundamental question.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861

By David M. Potter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

David M. Potter's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Impending Crisis is the definitive history of antebellum America. Potter's sweeping epic masterfully charts the chaotic forces that climaxed with the outbreak of the Civil War: westward expansion, the divisive issue of slavery, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's uprising, the ascension of Abraham Lincoln, and the drama of Southern secession. Now available in a new edition, The Impending Crisis remains one of the most celebrated works of American historical writing.


Desertion During the Civil War

By Dr. Ella Lonn,

Book cover of Desertion During the Civil War

Why this book?

Ella Lonn’s Desertion During the Civil War (1928) addressed a controversial element of the conflict and, more than ninety years after it was published, still stands as the only general treatment of the subject. Lonn described both the Union and Confederate sides of the story, examining the causes and scale of desertion, the behavior of men after they left their units, and efforts by both national governments to control the problem. She judged desertion a contributing factor in bringing Confederate defeat and found it especially crucial in 1864-1865. In states such as North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, she concluded, the presence of thousands of deserters spread demoralization among the civilian population. She pronounced Union desertion “the more to be deplored” because it lengthened a war that could have ended sooner if the United States had applied its full resources more effectively.

Desertion During the Civil War

By Dr. Ella Lonn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Desertion During the Civil War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Desertion during the Civil War, originally published in 1928, remains the only book-length treatment of its subject. Ella Lonn examines the causes and consequences of desertion from both the Northern and Southern armies. Drawing on official war records, she notes that one in seven enlisted Union soldiers and one in nine Confederate soldiers deserted.

Lonn discusses many reasons for desertion common to both armies, among them lack of such necessities as food, clothing, and equipment; weariness and discouragement; noncommitment and resentment of coercion; and worry about loved ones at home. Some Confederate deserters turned outlaw, joining ruffian bands in the…


The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy

By Bell Irvin Wiley,

Book cover of The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy

Why this book?

Bell I. Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952) marked a watershed in scholarship relating to the military history of the Civil War. It is no exaggeration to say that Wiley invented the genre of soldier studies that many decades later witnessed a profusion of works on the topic. The two books, which reflect a close reading of thousands of letters, explore such things as the process of enlistment, motivations to serve and remain in the ranks, what the men ate and wore, how they amused themselves, how they reacted to combat, why and in what numbers they deserted, how they related to people on the home fronts, attitudes toward the enemy, and religious practices. Although subsequent scholarship challenged some of Wiley’s conclusions, all historians who followed in his wake owed him a significant debt in shifting the analytical focus from generals and high strategy to the soldiers who bore the most direct responsibility for determining the war’s outcome.

The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy

By Bell Irvin Wiley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this companion to The Life of Johnny Reb, Bell Irvin Wiley explores the daily lives of the men in blue who fought to save the Union. With the help of many soldiers' letters and diaries, Wiley explains who these men were and why they fought, how they reacted to combat and the strain of prolonged conflict, and what they thought about the land and the people of Dixie. This fascinating social history reveals that while the Yanks and the Rebs fought for very different causes, the men on both sides were very much the same. ""This wonderfully interesting book…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, the Confederate States of America, and African Americans.

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