The best books on the common people of the Civil War

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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

James Marten Why did I love 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.

By Amy Murrell Taylor,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Embattled Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Civil War was just days old when the first enslaved men, women, and children began fleeing their plantations to seek refuge inside the lines of the Union army as it moved deep into the heart of the Confederacy. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands more followed in a mass exodus from slavery that would destroy the system once and for all. Drawing on an extraordinary survey of slave refugee camps throughout the country, Embattled Freedom reveals as never before the everyday experiences of these refugees from slavery as they made their way through the vast landscape of…


Book cover of A Prayer for the Dying

James Marten Why did I love 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.

By Stewart O'Nan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Prayer for the Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in a leafy Wisconsin town just after the American Civil War, this story opens one languid summer's day. Only slowly do events reveal themselves as sinister as one neighbour after another succumbs to a creeping, fatal disease.


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

James Marten Why did I love 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.

By Peter S. Carmichael,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The War for the Common Soldier as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How did Civil War soldiers endure the brutal and unpredictable existence of army life during the conflict? This question is at the heart of Peter S. Carmichael's sweeping new study of men at war. Based on close examination of the letters and records left behind by individual soldiers from both the North and the South, Carmichael explores the totality of the Civil War experience-the marching, the fighting, the boredom, the idealism, the exhaustion, the punishments, and the frustrations of being away from families who often faced their own dire circumstances. Carmichael focuses not on what soldiers thought but rather how…


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

James Marten Why did I love 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.

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked This Republic of Suffering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • An "extraordinary ... profoundly moving" history (The New York Times Book Review) of the American Civil War that reveals the ways that death on such a scale changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation.

More than 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in the American Civil War. An equivalent proportion of today's population would be six million. In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust describes how the survivors managed on a practical level and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the unprecedented carnage with its belief…


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

James Marten Why did I love 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.

By Tony Horwitz,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Confederates in the Attic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent takes us on an explosive adventure into the soul of the unvanquished South, where Civil War reenactors, battlefield visitors, and fans of history resurrect the ghosts of the Lost Cause through ritual and remembrance.  

"The freshest book about divisiveness in America that I have read in some time. This splendid commemoration of the war and its legacy ... is an eyes–open, humorously no–nonsense survey of complicated Americans." —The New York Times Book Review

For all who remain intrigued by the legacy of the Civil War—reenactors, battlefield visitors, Confederate descendants and other Southerners,…


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The Vixen Amber Halloway

By Carol LaHines,

Book cover of The Vixen Amber Halloway

Carol LaHines Author Of Distant Flickers: Stories of Identity & Loss

New book alert!

Who am I?

The anthology form unites diverse voices around a common theme—in the case of Distant Flickers, identity and loss. The stories in the anthology explore intense personal relationships—of mother and child, old lovers, etc. Some of the stories are in the moment and some recounted with the perspective of time, some are fable-like, some formal, and others more colloquial. Reading them the reader is struck by the variety of approaches a writer might take to a subject. The device of the contributor’s notes enables the reader to see the story behind the story and how life informs art—life furnishing the raw material or day residue of the story.  

Carol's book list on themed anthologies

What is my book about?

Ophelia, a professor of Dante, is stricken when she discovers that her husband Andy has been cheating on her with a winsome colleague. What follows is Ophelia’s figurative descent into hell as she obsessively tracks her subjects, performs surveillance in her beat-up Volvo, and moves into the property next door to Amber’s, which has gone into foreclosure.

She spies on the lovers, growing more and more estranged from reality. Andy’s betrayal reawakens the earlier trauma of abandonment by her mother at the age of eight. When Andy and Amber become engaged, Ophelia snaps. The story is a jailhouse confessional, a dark comedy, an oeuvre of women’s rage, a suspenseful revenge fantasy, and a moving portrait of one woman’s psychological breakdown.

The Vixen Amber Halloway

By Carol LaHines,

What is this book about?

Ophelia, a professor of Dante, is stricken when she discovers that her husband Andy has been cheating on her with a winsome colleague. What follows is Ophelia's figurative descent into hell as she obsessively tracks her subjects, performs surveillance in her beat-up Volvo, and moves into the property next door to Amber's, which has gone into foreclosure. She spies on the lovers, growing more and more estranged from reality. Andy's betrayal reawakens the earlier trauma of abandonment by her mother at the age of eight. When Andy and Amber become engaged, Ophelia snaps. The story is a jailhouse confessional, a…


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

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, the South, and slaves.

The American Civil War Explore 284 books about the American Civil War
The South Explore 173 books about the South
Slaves Explore 98 books about slaves