The best historical novels to bring the American Civil War alive

Who am I?

I am a native of the mountains of Western North Carolina. My direct ancestors include six generations of mountain farmers, as well as the bootleggers, preachers, and soldiers who appear in my novels. These generations include at least six family members who fought in the Civil War. I came to understand that the war itself began primarily over slavery, one of the most shameful and hideous aspects of our history. As a reader, I admire the complexity and power of these novels. As a writer, I sought to create a story of my own that offered a form of narrative healing to those, Black and white, who suffered through the horrific years of the war. 

I wrote...

That Bright Land

By Terry Roberts,

Book cover of That Bright Land

What is my book about?

In the summer of 1866, Jacob Ballard, a former Union soldier and spy, is dispatched by the War Department in Washington City to infiltrate the isolated North Carolina mountains where he was born and find the serial killer responsible for the deaths of Union veterans. Based on true events, That Bright Land is the story of a violent and fragile nation in the wake of the Civil War and a man who must exorcise his own savage demons while tracking down another.

That Bright Land won the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award, the James Still Award for Writing About the Appalachian South, and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction.

The books I picked & why

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By Shelby Foote,

Book cover of Shiloh

Why this book?

Shiloh is an early novel by writer and historian, Shelby Foote, that recounts the story of this bloody battle through multiple perspectives—both Union and Confederate. Foote does a masterful job of portraying how the lives of the various narrators are interrelated, especially the lives of those in each of the armies. In addition, he illuminates just how crazed and violent the experience of the battle itself was—in contrast to the often quite rational, even humane men who fought it. The success of Shiloh also led to Foote writing his monumental three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative and playing a starring role in Ken Burns’ documentary on the war. 


By Mackinlay Kantor,

Book cover of Andersonville

Why this book?

Andersonville was a groundbreaking novel about the war because it told the tragic story of the infamous Andersonville Prison (official name: Camp Sumter), located in Andersonville, Georgia. Andersonville was only in operation for a little over a year; however, during that time 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, and nearly 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure. In this remarkable novel, Kantor revealed a little-known aspect of the war that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Civil War soldiers and their families. The prison camps in both the north and south were inhumane and even cruel institutions, often more deadly than the battles themselves. Kantor’s novel explores this phenomenon through the use of multiple points of view (like several of the novels on this list).

Time of Drums

By John Ehle,

Book cover of Time of Drums

Why this book?

Time of Drums is a personal favorite of mine because it explores the Civil War through the first-person voice of Colonel Owen Wright, who is a native of the mountains of Western North Carolina, my own birthplace and home. Ehle masterfully interweaves the story of Wright’s career in the Confederate army with the volatile and tragic events on the home front in the Southern mountains. In addition, the national conflicts are simultaneously played out in the private lives of the characters in a deeply personal and moving way. Time of Drums is one of the most underrated Civil War novels and deserves a much wider readership. My own civil war book, That Bright Land, was dedicated to John Ehle for this reason.

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?

Killer Angels is perhaps one of the better-known Civil War books. It is told from multiple points of view in both the Confederate and Union armies, and in that way, brings to dramatic life all three days of the battle of Gettysburg. Shaara’s novel is peopled almost exclusively by historical personages and so blends history and fiction in an extraordinarily readable form. It is also important to note that Killer Angels is the best fictional study we have of what is quite probably the most important battle in American history. 

Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier,

Book cover of Cold Mountain

Why this book?

Cold Mountain tells two intertwined stories, often in alternating chapters: one narrative strand follows W. P. Inman, a wounded Confederate veteran who walks home to the North Carolina mountains; the second narrative follows the wartime life of Inman’s beloved Ada Monroe. In this way, the novel portrays both life in the army and life on the home front—equally desperate realities. The novel also studies the war through both masculine and feminine lenses. It is based in part on Homer’s Odyssey and is indeed epic in scope. Cold Mountain has remained an incredibly popular novel and was the basis for the 2003 film by the same name.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

The American Civil War Explore 195 books about the American Civil War
North Carolina Explore 60 books about North Carolina
Pennsylvania Explore 41 books about Pennsylvania

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Battle Cry of Freedom, Shenandoah 1862, and The Invention of Wings if you like this list.