The best books to start with on the American Civil War

Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by the Civil War and read many books about it for pleasure over the years. Then in 2010 I decided to get serious and undertook a full-length biography of Stonewall Jackson. Four extremely intense years later I published Rebel Yell, and followed it a few years later with Hymns of the Republic, about the war’s final year. So I have spent much of the past decade doing little else but thinking about and writing about the Civil War.


I wrote...

Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

By S.C. Gwynne,

Book cover of Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

What is my book about?

The fourth and final year of the Civil War offers one of the era's most compelling narratives and one of history's great turning points. Now, Pulitzer Prize finalist S.C. Gwynne breathes new life into the epic battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant; the advent of 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army; William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea; the rise of Clara Barton; the election of 1864 (which Lincoln nearly lost); the wild and violent guerrilla war in Missouri; and the dramatic final events of the war, including Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

The books I picked & why

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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson,

Book cover of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Why this book?

This is hands down the best single-volume history of the Civil War. It’s so much more than a “survey” book. I am not quite sure how McPherson does it, but he manages to convey exceptional detail and nuance while sweeping through a gigantic historical landscape. Anyone interested in the Civil War should start with this book.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Battle Cry of Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now featuring a new Afterword by the author, this handy paperback edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom is without question the definitive one-volume history of the Civil War.
James McPherson's fast-paced narrative fully integrates the political, social, and military events that crowded the two decades from the outbreak of one war in Mexico to the ending of another at Appomattox. Packed with drama and analytical insight, the book vividly recounts the momentous episodes that preceded the Civil War including the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. From there it moves into…


Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Why this book?

Blight is one of our best Civil War-era historians and he is at the top of his game here. The book is wonderfully researched and well-told, especially the sections dealing with Douglass’s uneven relationship with Abraham Lincoln. Understanding Douglass’s point of view is key to a full understanding of what the war was about.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Frederick Douglass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History**

"Extraordinary...a great American biography" (The New Yorker) of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with…


Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign

By Peter Cozzens,

Book cover of Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign

Why this book?

I discovered this book a few years ago while writing my biography of Jackson. The subject is probably the single most dazzling bit of tactical warfare in American history. Its relatively short duration—March through June, 1882—means that Cozzens can go deep, and go deep he does.

Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign

By Peter Cozzens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shenandoah 1862 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most intriguing and storied episodes of the Civil War, the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign has heretofore been related only from the Confederate point of view. Moving seamlessly between tactical details and analysis of strategic significance, Peter Cozzens presents a balanced, comprehensive account of a campaign that has long been romanticized but little understood. He offers new interpretations of the campaign and the reasons for Stonewall Jackson's success, demonstrates instances in which the mythology that has come to shroud the campaign has masked errors on Jackson's part, and provides the first detailed appraisal of Union leadership in the…


A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy

By Bruce Catton,

Book cover of A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy

Why this book?

This book is the reason I originally became obsessed with the Civil War and the reason millions of other Americans discovered it. Catton was one of the first historians to apply lyrical, poetical writing to the grisly events of the war, and it is the writing that makes his books stand out. He won the Pulitzer with it in 1954. The subject is the war as seen from the point of view of Grant and his Army of the Potomac.

A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy

By Bruce Catton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Stillness at Appomattox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Recounting the final year of the Civil War, this classic volume by Bruce Catton won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for excellence in non-fiction.

In this final volume of the Army of the Potomac Trilogy, Catton, America's foremost Civil War historian, takes the reader through the battles of the Wilderness, the Bloody Angle, Cold Harbot, the Crater, and on through the horrible months to one moment at Appomattox. Grant, Meade, Sheridan, and Lee vividly come to life in all their failings and triumphs.


The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

By Michael Shaara,

Book cover of The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

Why this book?

I am normally not a fan of historical fiction (Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy excepted), but Shaara’s book is an example of how fiction can convey truth better than nonfiction. The subject here is one of the greatest and most telling in our history: the Battle of Gettysburg. The narrative is generally faithful to conventional histories, but because this is fiction we can see through walls and hear conversations never recorded. It’s a brilliant little book and I do believe it is the “truth” about the battle.

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

By Michael Shaara,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Killer Angels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“My favorite historical novel . . . a superb re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg, but its real importance is its insight into what the war was about, and what it meant.”—James M. McPherson
 
In the four most bloody and courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies fought for two conflicting dreams. One dreamed of freedom, the other of a way of life. Far more than rifles and bullets were carried into battle. There were memories. There were promises. There was love. And far more than men fell on those Pennsylvania fields. Bright futures, untested innocence, and pristine beauty…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, slaves, and the Battle of Gettysburg?

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, slaves, and the Battle of Gettysburg.

The American Civil War Explore 233 books about the American Civil War
Slaves Explore 72 books about slaves
The Battle Of Gettysburg Explore 8 books about the Battle of Gettysburg

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Grant, Cold Mountain, and This Republic of Suffering if you like this list.