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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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