The best military history books about the Civil War and the soldiers who fought

Lesley J. Gordon Author Of A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut's Civil War
By Lesley J. Gordon

Who am I?

I have been reading, researching, writing, and teaching Civil War military history for nearly thirty years. I first became interested in soldiers and their experiences as a teen, and went on to earn a PhD in American History at the University of Georgia. I’ve always been fascinated by the anti-hero, and the ways in which everyday people coped (or failed to cope) with this violent conflict. I am currently writing a book about regiments accused of cowardice and how those searing allegations cast a shadow over their military record. From 2010-2015, I served as editor of the scholarly journal Civil War History, and I was recently elected President of the Society for Civil War Historians (2022-2024).


I wrote...

A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut's Civil War

By Lesley J. Gordon,

Book cover of A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut's Civil War

What is my book about?

A Broken Regiment recounts the tragic history of one of the Civil War's most ill-fated Union military units. Organized in the late summer of 1862, the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was unprepared for battle a month later, when it entered the fight at Antietam. The results were catastrophic: nearly a quarter of the men were killed or wounded, and Connecticut's 16th panicked and fled the field. In the years that followed, the regiment participated in minor skirmishes before surrendering en masse in North Carolina in 1864. 

The struggles of the 16th led survivors to reflect on the true nature of their military experience during and after the war, and questions of cowardice and courage, patriotism and purpose, were often foremost in their thoughts.

The books I picked & why

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Hood's Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy's Most Celebrated Unit

By Susannah J. Ural,

Book cover of Hood's Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy's Most Celebrated Unit

Why this book?

Ural tackles a unit history, but this time a brigade and one of the most famous ones: Hood’s Texans. She showcases not just why and how they became renowned for their fighting effectiveness, but how these men—white southerners—were unapologetic in their support of slavery and the Confederacy. It is “new military history” at its best—combining astute military analysis with social and cultural understandings of the people and the times in which they lived.

Fredericksburg!

By George C. Rable,

Book cover of Fredericksburg!

Why this book?

Battle histories as a genre have generally remained traditional and narrative-based. But Rable’s award-winning book sought to break the mold—offering not just a comprehensive study of this Federal debacle, but a discussion of its greater significance. Rable notes the timing of the battle, in December 1862, correlated with intensifying debates over emancipation and the Union enlistment of black troops. As a study of command, too, Rable’s book is masterful. He examines the close relationships between Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants, and those on the Union side which were deteriorating. The Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, was adored by his men, but he proved disastrous as an army commander.

Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War

By Gerald Linderman,

Book cover of Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War

Why this book?

This book, first published in 1987, was (and is) harshly attacked by some scholars including James McPherson who blasted the book for its overreliance on postwar, published sources. Yet Linderman’s central thesis, that war negatively affected Civil War soldiers and for some, alienated them from families and communities at home, remains valid. It is not true that all Civil War soldiers were negatively affected by war, but many were, and Linderman was one of the first to challenge the mythology of the all-heroic and stoic Civil War soldier. For a book that makes you think differently about the war and the mythologies that continue to linger about it, I’d still go back to Linderman.

Desertion During the Civil War

By Dr. Ella Lonn,

Book cover of Desertion During the Civil War

Why this book?

Despite this book’s age—almost a century in print—it still stands as a seminal work on an important topic: desertion and its devastating effects on both armies. Lonn was born in 1879 in Indiana, and earned her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the few female historians at the time to do so. She was not immune to the racism of her day nor the cloying ideology of the Lost Cause, yet she told her readers she wanted to understand “the ugly and sordid sides of war.” Her book offers readers a wealth of information and insight to better understand the myriad of reasons why soldiers deserted.

On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters from the Front

By James Henry Gooding,

Book cover of On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters from the Front

Why this book?

There are many published letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers, but far fewer from black men. This collection, penned by James Henry Gooding, a member of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, highlights the military service of a black man, born into slavery but later freed, educated, and keenly observant of the world around him. He enlisted in February 1863, recording his experiences in letters first published in the New Bedford Mercury. Here, they are assembled with insightful editing, illustrations, and an appendix featuring Gooding’s efforts to obtain equal pay for black troops. In September 1863, Gooding wrote President Lincoln, asking pointedly: “Are we Soldiers, or are We Labourers?” Gooding was later captured in battle and sent to Andersonville Prison where he died. His story and his words are invaluable windows into this tumultuous time.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, Texas, and courage?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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