The best fiction books for experiencing the vivid reality of the Civil War

The Books I Picked & Why

The Red Badge of Courage

By Stephen Crane

Book cover of The Red Badge of Courage

Why this book?

As a reader, you spend zero time inside the minds of generals as they pour over maps and hash out strategy. Rather, The Red Badge of Courage focuses on a single character, 18-year-old private, Henry Fleming. And that’s the magic of Crane’s masterpiece. This is war seen from a perspective that is idiosyncratic, intimate, and deeply vulnerable.

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Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier

Book cover of Cold Mountain

Why this book?

For recent U.S. wars such as Vietnam or Iraq, there’s a considerable body of work both fiction and nonfiction that focuses on the travails of soldiers after the fighting ends. But this is a Civil War-era novel about coming home. It follows a Confederate deserter who leaves a Virginia hospital and sets out for his North Carolina farm. At times heart-breaking, at times uproariously funny, Cold Mountain addresses the weight of war, and the way that survivors are burdened with wounds both physical and psychological.

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Gone With the Wind

By Margaret Mitchell

Book cover of Gone With the Wind

Why this book?

As a novel extolling the Confederacy and slavery, this work is problematic, to be sure. Modern readers will have to grapple with whether its merits outweigh its antiquated worldview. In the merits column: Gone with the Wind focuses on the home front and specifically the experiences of women, a topic that gets short shrift in both Civil War fiction and nonfiction. As it happens, only a small percentage of Americans were soldiers. But everyone was affected by the war, and everyone was forced to navigate a world utterly transformed. In this important way, Gone with the Wind explores experiences shared by Union and Confederate civilians alike.  

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The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

By Ambrose Bierce

Book cover of The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Why this book?

Unlike so many writers, Bierce had actual Civil War experience, as a Union soldier who saw action in a number of key battles. His stories are characterized by a rigorous attention to detail. But Bierce enjoyed serving up verisimilitude with a twist. A strong sense of the macabre, rivaling Poe, is present in some of Bierce’s finest stories such as “Chickamauga,” “One of the Missing,” and “Parker Adderson, Philosopher.” His timeless “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” features one of the most mind-bending twists in all of fiction.

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Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman

Book cover of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Why this book?

This fifth pick isn’t fiction. But like the best fiction, poetry can pierce through to the very essence. Although shaggy poet Whitman was the furthest thing from a soldier imaginable, he was deeply involved in the war effort nonetheless. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find his wounded brother. He then chose to remain in Washington, DC, nursing wounded soldiers. Whitman’s war-time experiences gave rise to some of the finest poems in Leaves of Grass such as “The Wound-Dresser,” “Come Up from the Fields Father,” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.”

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