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

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson,

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

Why 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.”

Shiloh 1862

By Winston Groom,

Book cover of Shiloh 1862

Why 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.”     

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?

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.

Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War

By Brian Matthew Jordan,

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

Why 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.

The Red Badge of Courage

By Stephen Crane,

Book cover of The Red Badge of Courage

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, Tennessee, and death?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, Tennessee, and death.

The American Civil War Explore 194 books about the American Civil War
Tennessee Explore 42 books about Tennessee
Death Explore 202 books about death

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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