The best books on the ongoing legacy of the American Civil War

Nina Silber Author Of This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America
By Nina Silber

The Books I Picked & Why

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

By David W. Blight

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Why this book?

This book was, for me, like a light bulb that suddenly illuminated a dark terrain: a brilliant analysis of how American memories of the Civil War often bear so little relationship to what really happened in the actual war. Historian David Blight not only dissects myths, like the “Lost Cause”, he also explores the powerful pressures that compelled many Americans, especially white Americans, to pledge allegiance to a reconciliation between the sections. As he observes, that drive to reunify was often accompanied by amnesia about how slavery drove the sections apart and how the long history of black enslavement left a lasting scar on American life.


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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

By Clint Smith

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Why this book?

While David Blight helps us understand how a post Civil War reunion was built on a terribly incomplete and racially-biased foundation, Clint Smith’s beautifully written book probes the way various Americans, black and white, Northern and Southern, as well as some non-Americans, are currently reckoning with the slave past. In the book, we follow Smith, an African-American journalist and poet, on his travels to several historic sites, among them Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia; the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana; a Confederate cemetery; and Gorée Island in Senegal. Along the way, we not only learn a lot about the history of these sites but also how individual Americans, many of them regular folk visiting these places, are grappling with the past and the present, and how to make sense of our nation’s long history of slavery.


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On Juneteenth

By Annette Gordon-Reed

On Juneteenth

Why this book?

In this brief and powerful book, esteemed historian Annette Gordon-Reed focuses on “Juneteenth”, the day (June 19, 1865) when enslaved workers in Texas were declared free by the Union Army following the conclusion of the Civil War. For Gordon-Reed, a black Texas woman, Juneteenth, recently declared a federal holiday, offers a starting point for pondering the legacy of slavery and emancipation for Afro-Texans and for thinking more broadly about the tension between history and myth. In the course of all this, Gordon-Reed tells her own personal story about navigating the often fraught terrain of her state’s legacy of racial exploitation.


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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Why this book?

I’ve used this book countless times in the classroom and it always prompts a probing discussion. The late journalist Tony Horwitz takes his readers with him on his travels, mostly through the South and mainly to locations where the Civil War seems to be a pressing, present-day concern. We meet Civil War re-enactors, members and sponsors of the Lost Cause-themed “Children of the Confederacy”, Civil Rights activists, school teachers, and tourists, all of whom share with Horwitz their perspectives on what the War means to them. Although Horwitz wrote this account in the 1990s, much of it feels like a foreshadowing of the conflicts we live with today.


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No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice

By Karen L. Cox

No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice

Why this book?

For anyone who wants a clear and concise overview of the Confederate monument issue, this is your book. Cox, a historian, goes through the historical twists and turns of monument construction in the South and, importantly, shows how this was closely intertwined with issues of race. I particularly like the way she spotlights a long history of black Southerners who expressed outrage, and sometimes secretly defiled, these monuments that had sprung up in some of the most prominent public spaces across the South.


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