The best books about slavery and the confederacy

Who am I?

I am a historian and educator based in Boston. I have authored three books and numerous essays on the Civil War era. You can find my op-eds in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast. Over the past few years, I have worked with students and teachers across the country to better understand the current controversy surrounding Confederate monuments.


I wrote...

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

By Kevin M. Levin,

Book cover of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

What is my book about?

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, scores of websites, articles, and organizations repeat claims that anywhere between 500 and 100,000 free and enslaved African Americans fought willingly as soldiers in the Confederate army. Such claims would have shocked anyone who served in the army during the war itself. Searching for Black Confederates is the first scholarly study to explain how imprecise contemporary accounts, poorly understood primary-source material, and other misrepresentations helped to fuel the rise of this myth, beginning in the mid-1970s. 

Searching for Black Confederates also explores the roles that thousands of personal body servants and forced laborers actually performed in support of the Confederate army. Regardless of the dangers these men faced in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield, their legal status remained unchanged. The thousands of enslaved men that traveled with the army serves as an important reminder of the central importance that the Confederacy placed on protecting slavery.

The books I picked & why

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Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

By Charles B. Dew,

Book cover of Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

Why this book?

This slim volume packs a mean punch. Following the secession of the seven Deep Southern states in 1860-61, commissioners were sent out to the remaining uncommitted slaveholding states to convince their leaders of the necessity of joining the new Confederate States of America. While the arguments of these secession commissioners included constitutional arguments in favor of secession, they relied even more so on emotional pleas that framed the election of the nation’s first Republican president as a direct threat to the institution of slavery and white supremacy. Their speeches were laced with horrific images of emancipation and a region plunged into racial violence. Charles Dew offers a compelling argument that highlights the importance of slavery and race in the outbreak of war.


Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South

By Jaime Amanda Martinez,

Book cover of Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South

Why this book?

The Confederacy relied extensively on slave labor throughout the Civil War. The Confederate War Department and Engineer Bureau utilized enslaved labor to construct fortifications at key sites, build and repair railroad lines, and manufacture war materiel in places like Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works. According to historian Jaime Martinez, this impressed labor forced slaveowners into close cooperation with an increasingly centralized Confederate government that struggled to conduct a war against an enemy that enjoyed advantages in manpower and other resources. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is its coverage of the conditions that slaves operated under while on military duty. Many became sick and died while others took their chances to escape to the Union army. Finally, Martinez argues convincingly that the Confederacy’s impressment policies influenced the timing of Lincoln’s push toward emancipation as a way to undermine the Confederate mobilization of slave labor.


Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War

By Colin Edward Woodward,

Book cover of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War

Why this book?

Most Confederate soldiers were not slaveholders, but as historian Colin Woodward argues, all of them were products of a slaveholding culture and, as a result, fought to maintain the rigid racial hierarchy that had come to define their respective communities. Appreciating the central place that the defense of slavery occupied for most Confederates helps us to better understand why the war lasted as long as it did. Some of the most interesting chapters in this book explore the roles played by thousands of body servants that accompanied officers from the slaveholding class. Enslaved men performed a wide range of jobs, including cooking meals, washing clothes, and digging ditches. Their presence served as a constant reminder of the army’s reliance on enslaved labor and its broader significance as the Confederacy’s “cornerstone.”


Lee and Jackson's Bloody Twelfth: The Letters of Irby Goodwin Scott, First Lieutenant, Company G, Putnam Light Infantry, Twelfth Georgia Volunteer Infantry

By Johnnie Perry Pearson (editor),

Book cover of Lee and Jackson's Bloody Twelfth: The Letters of Irby Goodwin Scott, First Lieutenant, Company G, Putnam Light Infantry, Twelfth Georgia Volunteer Infantry

Why this book?

Over one million men served in the Confederate army between 1861 and 1865. Their letters and diaries offer insight into every aspect of military service, including their views on slavery. Irby Goodwin Scott’s published letters track his movements in the Army of Northern Virginia and include detailed coverage of some of the bloodiest battles of the war. They also offer a window into the relationship between one officer and two body servants that accompanied him at different times during the war. Scott relied on his body servants in camp, on the march, and even on the battlefield, but he also acknowledged a shared experience brought on by the exigency of war. Together master and slave experienced being away from family, suffered through inclement weather, and bouts of sickness. The relationship between master and slave evolved over the course of the war, based on a wide range of factors. Violence was never completely absent as a means of control. While historians have had to rely almost exclusively on the letters of Confederate officers for insight into how body servants experienced the war, this collection includes a few letters from enslaved men themselves. 


Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War

By Bruce Levine,

Book cover of Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War

Why this book?

The Confederacy was consistent throughout most of the war that Black men could not be recruited to serve in the army as soldiers. This was a war to preserve slavery and white supremacy and Black enlisted men would have undermined the very justification for secession and the creation of a new nation. As the war entered its fourth year, however, more and more people realized that this policy was no longer tenable. Historian Bruce Levine offers a thorough analysis of the very public and bitterly divisive debate that took place throughout the Confederacy in 1864 over whether slaves could be recruited as soldiers. Confederates debated this subject in the capital of Richmond, in the army, and in countless newspapers. The question was clear: Should the Confederacy recruit Black men as a way to avoid defeat? That it took the Confederate government until mid-March 1865 to finally approve slave enlistment—much too late to make any difference to the outcome of the war—reinforces just how important protecting slavery was for white southerners, even in the face of military defeat.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the South, slaves, and military policy?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the South, slaves, and military policy.

The South Explore 89 books about the South
Slaves Explore 55 books about slaves
Military Policy Explore 13 books about military policy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps, Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy, and Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era if you like this list.