The best books on the common people of the Civil War

James Marten Author Of The Children's Civil War
By James Marten

Who am I?

A long-time professor of history at Marquette University, James Marten is a past president of both the Society of Civil War Historians and the Society for the History of Children and Youth. He’s written or edited over twenty books and scores of articles and has been interviewed on National and Wisconsin Public Radio and for numerous local and national publications. He writes about the ways in which big events affect normal people, from children and families to soldiers and veterans.

I wrote...

The Children's Civil War

By James Marten,

Book cover of The Children's Civil War

What is my book about?

Children--white and black, northern and southern--endured a vast and varied range of experiences during the Civil War. Children celebrated victories and mourned defeats, tightened their belts and widened their responsibilities, took part in patriotic displays and suffered shortages and hardships, fled their homes to escape enemy invaders, and snatched opportunities to run toward the promise of freedom.

Offering a fascinating look at how children were affected by our nation's greatest crisis, James Marten examines their toys and games, their literature and schoolbooks, the letters they exchanged with absent fathers and brothers, and the hardships they endured. He also explores children's politicization, their contributions to their homelands' war efforts, and the lessons they took away from the war.

The books I picked & why

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Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps

By Amy Murrell Taylor,

Book cover of Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps

Why this book?

This book won all the awards from professional history organizations—almost literally. Yet it’s also readable and moving. It’s a deeply researched book about the fraught experiences of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who ran away, or were liberated, during the Civil War. Contraband camps were an opportunity for former slaves to be thought about as something other than property. Yet the camps were also dangerous places, where disease and administrative indifference made freedom nearly as deadly as slavery. This is simply the best recent book about the African American experience during the Civil War.

A Prayer for the Dying

By Stewart O'Nan,

Book cover of A Prayer for the Dying

Why this book?

Not about the war itself, but nevertheless a riveting novel of the gradual unraveling of a Civil War veteran turned town marshal—clearly suffering from PTSD—as a forest fire and a deadly epidemic threatens his small town in 1870s Wisconsin. War memory, horror, and a vivid portrayal of postwar life are all crowded into this 200-page book. The writing is brisk and accessible, but the plot is full of twists and nuances that build toward an eerie and surprising ending.

The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies

By Peter S. Carmichael,

Book cover of The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies

Why this book?

Accounts of the common soldier are part of a long tradition in Civil War history—but this is not your typical study. Carmichael sets out not to examine motivations or ideology, but to explore "the life of the rank and file as it was lived." The war forced soldiers in the North and South to bridge the gulf between two competing impulses. "Sentimentalism" helped soldiers understand war as a series of hardships and sacrifices that could be endured through faith, courage, and patriotism. Confronting this conventional approach was a "pragmatism" that guided soldiers desperately seeking to survive with honor the filth, blood, and despair that they actually experienced. Carmichael makes his argument through careful, moving, and fascinating narratives of men trying to explain the war to their loved ones and to themselves.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Book cover of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Why this book?

An amazing 2 percent of the population died in combat or from disease during the Civil War. Drew Faust examines how Americans experienced death—their own, those of their loved ones—and explained those deaths to themselves and to others. Faust covers topics ranging from the anguish felt when sons and husbands died far from home without experiencing the “good death” in the comforting bosoms of mourning families to the origins of embalming techniques (only the richest dead soldiers could be sent home) to the campaign to identify and re-inter tens of thousands of unknown soldiers hastily buried almost where they fell on the battlefield. Throughout, readers get a sad and wonderful sense of how normal Americans endured the war’s carnival of death.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz,

Book cover of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Why this book?

Over twenty years after it was published, Horowitz’s examination of how late twentieth century southerners, black and white, remembered the Civil War, is sadly relevant. Although much of the book is a kind of travelogue describing Civil War buffs, battlefield commemorations, and so-called “heritage” groups like the Sons, Daughters, and Children of the Confederacy, Horwitz’s pivot at the midway point to cover a murder trial in Kentucky leads to a serious discussion of race relations that turns this into a book that is not only an entertaining read, but also an important one.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, the South, and slaves?

5,888 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 South, and slaves.

The American Civil War Explore 200 books about the American Civil War
The South Explore 98 books about the South
Slaves Explore 58 books about slaves

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Battle Cry of Freedom, The Devil in the White City, and The Red Badge of Courage if you like this list.