The best books to understand the American Civil War from different perspectives

Gerald Gillis Author Of That Deadly Space
By Gerald Gillis

The Books I Picked & Why

The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville

By Shelby Foote

Book cover of The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville

Why this book?

If I could recommend one book to provide what would amount to a course on the Civil War, it would be this massive tour de force. This three-volume non-fiction history of the Civil War covers the entire span of the conflict in exacting and vivid detail. Shelby Foote was already a noted novelist and historian when became ever more popular for his appearances on the Ken Burns televised series about the war. Foote adeptly covers the military operations in both the Eastern and Western theaters of operation, with mention of how the politics of both sides factored into the outcomes of battles, and eventually of the war itself. This is a well-researched, historically accurate depiction of a brutal, unrelenting war written very much in the appealing style of a novelist. With over a million words comprising the three volumes, it is an investment of time that, for Civil War enthusiasts, will pay dividends with each turn of the 2,968 pages.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

By Stephen W. Sears

Book cover of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Why this book?

This definitive non-fiction work on the Battle of Antietam, written by one of the Civil War’s most distinguished authors, is my favorite book on the epic Battle of Antietam. Renowned historian Stephen W. Sears displays his considerable talents in describing what became the single bloodiest day in American history on September 17, 1862. Over 23,000 casualties were claimed in a battle that essentially ended in a stalemate with both sides badly diminished and thoroughly exhausted. Sears draws upon letters, diaries, and dispatches to paint a picture of a day of shocking, murderous carnage for the officers and men who fought it out near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was fresh off a victory at Second Manassas, and was met by Union George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. While the result wasn’t conclusive, the Confederates eventually left the field and returned to Virginia without the victory it had sought. Soon thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln would use occasion to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. For any Civil War buff, this book should be required reading.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

By Michael Shaara

Book cover of The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

Why this book?

Since I prefer writing historical novels, this book is in many ways the gold standard for that genre in Civil War fiction. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel brings the reader to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to experience the pivotal battle of the Civil War on July 1-3, 1863 Over the course of those three days, the ferocity of the engagement claimed 51,000 men of both sides either killed, wounded, or missing. The story includes the perspectives of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, along with Union generals Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford. Michael Shaara, an accomplished storyteller, enables the reader to share in the rigors of the desperate combat, the emotional swings among the commanders as the battle progresses, and the conclusion where the Union army turns back the attacking Confederates during Pickett’s Charge. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would fight on for nearly two years more, but would never again mount an offensive outside the South. This is simply a jewel of a book.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Grant Takes Command

By Bruce Catton

Book cover of Grant Takes Command

Why this book?

I found this non-fiction book a fascinating study, not only in purely military terms but in a classic rags-to-riches example that so exemplifies America at its very finest. The book concerns a man who had experienced only limited success in his early life, and who then emerges from that relative obscurity in the opening months of the Civil War to become the Union commander who defeats the fabled Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He then accepts Lee’s surrender at Appomattox with an offer of generous terms to help reunite the nation. Pulitzer Prize winning author Bruce Catton provides a detailed portrait of Ulysses Simpson Grant, the U.S. Army commander who finally brings victory to President Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. This is a classic work of military history for the final year and a half of the war. This great book by this great author illustrates how Lincoln found General U.S. Grant, and by doing set the stage for the war to be won.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life

By David M. Jordan

Book cover of Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life

Why this book?

One of the finest officers in the history of the United States Army, Winfield Scott Hancock was considered by many to have been perhaps the most important figure in the Union victory at Gettysburg. Called “Hancock the Superb” by some of his fellow officers, he served as the Union commander of the 2nd Corps during the Gettysburg battle. He was an inspiring and consequential figure throughout the entirety of the three days of the conflict. In one of the war’s great ironies, Hancock was seriously wounded on the day of Pickett’s charge only yards from where his dear friend, Confederate General Lewis Armistead, had been felled by a rifle bullet as he led his Virginia brigade toward the Union position held by Hancock. General Winfield Scott Hancock was a natural leader whose courage was unquestioned and whose leadership was trusted by both his superior officers and the men under his command. A very good book on one of America’s most illustrious and heroic figures.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists