The best books that get at the heart of the American Civil War

Why am I passionate about this?

I graduated from undergraduate studies with a BA in history. Virtually all of my history courses taken to obtain my degree were in the European area. When I began writing my book Your Brother in Arms, I spent my research time immersed in Civil War history. This took the form of archival research, reading scores of Civil War history books, and visiting every major Civil War battlefield where the Army of the Potomac fought. These experiences, along with time spent with Civil War historians over five years, resulted in an intellectual, physical, and emotional involvement in the American Civil War that took hold of me and never let go.


I wrote...

Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey

By Robert C. Plumb,

Book cover of Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey

What is my book about?

George P. McClelland, through his forty-one letters to family, shares the scenes he witnessed as an infantryman participating in battles from Fredericksburg to Petersburg during his service on the front lines of the Army of the Potomac 1862–1865. Written from the battlefield and the infirmary, McClelland’s accounts describe the efforts of the common soldier who performed uncommon service for his country in its time of great need. Through this book, the detailed experiences of one soldier—examined amidst the larger account of the war in the eastern theater—offer a fresh personal perspective on one of the nation’s most brutal conflicts.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Robert C. Plumb Why did I love this book?

Just because a book wins the Pulitzer Prize (1989 in History) doesn’t always mean you will enjoy reading it or be influenced and enlightened by it. But Battle Cry of Freedom is a single volume that masterfully covers the Civil War from its genesis to the conclusion. While an academic, James McPherson (professor at Princeton University) avoids the turgid, scholarly jargon that has plagued many works from academic historians. McPherson’s research is impeccable and his writing is clear, compelling, and covers a variety of topics from the social and political backdrops of the war to the fighting and the military leadership of both Union and Confederate armies. If asked what single book on the Civil War I would read if I had but one choice, I would unhesitatingly say: “Battle Cry of Freedom.”

By James M. McPherson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Battle Cry of Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now featuring a new Afterword by the author, this handy paperback edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom is without question the definitive one-volume history of the Civil War.
James McPherson's fast-paced narrative fully integrates the political, social, and military events that crowded the two decades from the outbreak of one war in Mexico to the ending of another at Appomattox. Packed with drama and analytical insight, the book vividly recounts the momentous episodes that preceded the Civil War including the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. From there it moves into…


Book cover of Shiloh 1862

Robert C. Plumb Why did I love this book?

The Battle of Shiloh has been the subject of a number of distinguished historians, but only Winston Groom is able to capture the 170 individual fights between regiments with clarity and skill. The sheer numbers are daunting—100,000 soldiers fighting in 12 square miles. But Groom has told the complex Shiloh story effectively without getting bogged down in “minute detail and technical aspects” as he reports in his beginning notes. Groom’s writing is enhanced by ten detailed maps that bring lucency and specificity to the narrative. Shiloh, fought in 1862, had a deeper impact that foretold the future. In Groom’s words: “It was as if at Shiloh they had unleashed some giant, murderous thing that was now going to drench the country in blood, just as Sherman had predicted back in 1860.”     

By Winston Groom,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shiloh 1862 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this gripping telling of the first "great and terrible" battle of the Civil War, Groom describes the dramatic events of April 6 and 7, 1862, when a bold surprise attack on Ulysses S. Grant's encamped troops and the bloody battle that ensued would alter the timbre of the war.


Book cover of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Robert C. Plumb Why did I love this book?

Few who have any interest in the American Civil War have any doubt that a dark cloud of death hung over the nation from 1861 to 1865. This cloud and the losses it represented were so profound that the country found a new way to mourn its losses. Embalming became an accepted and common way to transport the dead to their loved ones at home. Recognizing that 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War (killed and died of disease), Faust’s book is an essential element in understanding the war and its consequences. Faust maintains: “War cannot be understood or communicated as a grand panorama. It is real only in the context of individual lives and deaths.” This book brilliantly underscores the truth of the author’s perspective about communicating the war’s narrative.

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Why should I read it?

7 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…


Book cover of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War

Robert C. Plumb Why did I love this book?

At the end of the Civil War, men in gray returned home, vanquished, dispirited, but confident they fought bravely. Men in blue returned victorious, many bearing wounds of war—the missing limb, the disfigured face—but they lived with the certainty that they had prevailed. Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home describes a troubling narrative of Union veterans as they struggled to transition from soldiers to citizens. Jordan writes: “Demobilization at first glance was a stunning success for 800,000 men, but it was in fact a protracted process, punctuated with delay, discomfort, and even disaster.” Jordan also documents the mental condition that many soldiers harbored. Based on examples gleaned from letters, diaries, and detailed third-person accounts, Jordan describes the post-traumatic stress among soldiers during the period following the Civil War.

By Brian Matthew Jordan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For well over a century, traditional Civil War histories have concluded in 1865, with a bitterly won peace and Union soldiers returning triumphantly home. In a landmark work that challenges sterilized portraits accepted for generations, Civil War historian Brian Matthew Jordan creates an entirely new narrative. These veterans- tending rotting wounds, battling alcoholism, campaigning for paltry pensions- tragically realized that they stood as unwelcome reminders to a new America eager to heal, forget, and embrace the freewheeling bounty of the Gilded Age. Mining previously untapped archives, Jordan uncovers anguished letters and diaries, essays by amputees, and gruesome medical reports, all…


Book cover of The Red Badge of Courage

Robert C. Plumb Why did I love this book?

Why read The Red Badge of Courage written by a man who did not serve in the war, when there are so many letters and diaries written by bona fide soldiers who served in the war? Crane’s depiction of Henry Fleming, the soldier, is a work of fiction that uses Crane’s Modernist style to tell the story of a soldier who is gripped by fear of being in combat. Crane’s narration highlights the main character’s isolation and psychological crises. The mental state of the soldier in the book more accurately depicts the mind of soldiers in war than letters and diaries. These non-fictional writings are usually very positive to avoid (1.) concerning family members, and (2) avoid a poor reflection on the writer’s military bearing. This novel is an accurate reflection of a Civil War soldier’s mind and should be in every Civil War enthusiast’s library.

By Stephen Crane,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Red Badge of Courage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

Here is Stephen Crane's masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage, together with four of his most famous short stories. Outstanding in their portrayal of violent emotion and quiet tension, these texts led the way for great American writers such as Ernest Hemingway.


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A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

Kathleen Baldwin Author Of Sanctuary for Seers: A Stranje House Novel

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Loves God Mother to Many Wilderness Adventurer History Enthusiast

Kathleen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A spy school for girls amidst Jane Austen’s high society.

Daughters of the Beau Monde who don’t fit London society’s strict mold are banished to Stranje House, where the headmistress trains these unusually gifted girls to enter the dangerous world of spies in the Napoleonic wars. #1 NYT bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this exciting historical series "completely original and totally engrossing."

A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

What is this book about?

A School for Unusual Girls is the first captivating installment in the Stranje House series for young adults by award-winning author Kathleen Baldwin. #1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this romantic Regency adventure "completely original and totally engrossing."

It's 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England's dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don't fit high society's constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young…


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