The best books that lay bare the human ordeal of the Civil War

Brian Matthew Jordan Author Of A Thousand May Fall: An Immigrant Regiment's Civil War
By Brian Matthew Jordan

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War my entire life. As a boy, I met a man in my Ohio hometown who spent his own youth visiting with the last, wrinkled survivors of the Union armies. His memories at once made the Civil War real and immediate for me. I soon devoured every book and walked every battlefield I could find. After earning an undergraduate degree in Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College, I completed my Ph.D. at Yale. I have authored six books on the conflict—one of which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer in History—and teach courses on the Civil War at Sam Houston State University.   


I wrote...

A Thousand May Fall: An Immigrant Regiment's Civil War

By Brian Matthew Jordan,

Book cover of A Thousand May Fall: An Immigrant Regiment's Civil War

What is my book about?

From the pen of a Pulitzer Prize finalist, A Thousand May Fall is an intimate chronicle of the Civil War—narrated from the fighting ranks of an ethnically German regiment in the United States army. Throughout its two years and ten months of service, the 107th Ohio endured not only the horrible extremes of war, but the ugly scourge of nativism. Its men knew the ache of defeat and the taste of victory. Suffering horrific losses at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, they tracked between hope and heartbreak, cynicism and conviction. After the war, they tended to the burdensome errands of memory. Based on prodigious research into neglected sources, this revelatory history restores the common man and immigrant striver to the center of Civil War history. 

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 recovers—through diligent archival spadework and keen historical empathy—the human realities of emancipation for freedom-seeking enslaved persons. Emancipation, Taylor demonstrates, was a humanitarian refugee crisis acted out amidst the uncertainties of civil warfare. Embattled Freedom supplies a sweeping survey of a complex historical process, but it does so on a human scale—tracking a small group of protagonists as they wind their way to the uncertain asylum of slave refugee (“contraband”) camps. The author’s close attention to the material realities of “contraband” camps—hunger, shelter, and clothing—builds a sense of intimacy and emotional connection. Scholars have established that emancipation was a process, and that the enslaved played a vital role in their own liberation; here is the best account of how that struggle was lived.   

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

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…

The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

By Thavolia Glymph,

Book cover of The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

Why this book?

While this book treats the experiences of northern and southern women during the Civil War, it amplifies the too-long neglected voices of poor white and enslaved women in particular. The Women’s Fight is that rare work of historical synthesis that says something new and daring. It breaks down the fictive boundary between the home front and the battle front, demonstrating how real people felt, intuited, and experienced the disruptions of war in disparate ways. Most importantly, it reminds us that the Civil War both displaced people and brought them together in unlikely combinations. Erudite and eloquent.

The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

By Thavolia Glymph,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Women's Fight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Historians of the Civil War often speak of "wars within a war--the military fight, wartime struggles on the home front, and the political and moral battle to preserve the Union and end slavery. In this broadly conceived book, Thavolia Glymph provides a comprehensive new history of women's roles and lives in the Civil War--North and South, white and black, slave and free--showing how women were essentially and fully engaged in all three arenas. Glymph focuses on the ideas and ideologies that drove women's actions, allegiances, and politics. We encounter women as they stood their ground, moved into each other's territory,…

A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation

By John Matteson,

Book cover of A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation

Why this book?

John Matteson is a deft prose stylist who once more delivers in this engrossing narrative of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of five key protagonists—including the poet Walt Whitman and a young Louisa May Alcott. The characters wind up on the murderous battlefields and teeming hospital wards of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The title is admittedly deceptive; readers expecting an operational or tactical history of Ambrose Burnside’s rout on the Rappahannock won’t find it here. On the other hand, those interested in a searing meditation on all that the war did to individual human bodies and minds—and the collective American soul—will savor this haunting, smart, and elegant book.  

A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation

By John Matteson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Worse Place Than Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

December 1862 drove the United States towards a breaking point. The Battle of Fredericksburg shattered Union forces and Northern confidence. As Abraham Lincoln's government threatened to fracture, this critical moment also tested five extraordinary individuals whose lives reflect the soul of a nation. The changes they underwent led to profound repercussions in the country's law, literature, politics and popular mythology. Taken together, their stories offer a striking restatement of what it means to be American. Guided by patriotism, driven by desire, all five moved towards singular destinies. A young Harvard intellectual steeped in courageous ideals, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr confronted…


Mourning Lincoln

By Martha Hodes,

Book cover of Mourning Lincoln

Why this book?

Before the past becomes history, it is lived in real-time by real people striving to understand it. From an avalanche of firsthand accounts, Hodes relates how Americans still reeling from civil war made sense of an unprecedented assassination. (Hint: they did so in a variety of ways, from expressions of grief and glee, from feelings of rage and resignation, from the margins of scrapbook pages to homespun mourning garb.) Hodes’ close and clever reading of sources recovers the anarchy and confusion of the Civil War’s aftermath.  

Mourning Lincoln

By Martha Hodes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How did individual Americans respond to the shock of President Lincoln's assassination? Diaries, letters, and intimate writings reveal a complicated, untold story.
Winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2015, and a long list finalist for the National Book Award "[A] lyrical and important new study."-Jill Lepore, New York Times Book Review
"Richly detailed and exquisitely written, . . . it immerses the readers in the world of 1865."-Anne Sarah Rubin, Journal of American History

The news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865, just days after Confederate surrender, astounded the war-weary…

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?

The Civil War snuffed out the lives of some 750,000 soldiers—more than two-and-a-half percent of the U.S. population. Drew Gilpin Faust’s powerful book tallies the physical, psychological, and emotional toll of living amid mass death. The author is especially interested in all that Civil War death demanded from the living—from a clever rhetorical alchemy to an expanded government bureaucracy; from new embalming technologies to the first national cemeteries. Though informed by deep research and the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War era, the book nonetheless communicates timeless universals. Indeed, few books have done more to drive home war’s enormous human consequences.  

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Why should I read it?

6 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…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, slaves, and women in war?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, slaves, and women in war.

The American Civil War Explore 210 books about the American Civil War
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