The best books about the Civil War in general

The Books I Picked & Why

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson

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.


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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight

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.


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Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign

By Peter Cozzens

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.


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A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy

By Bruce Catton

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.


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The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

By Michael Shaara

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.


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