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

Who am I?

Having grown up visiting lots of historic sites – and hearing my father sing old Civil War tunes (frequently off-key!) on long car trips – I gravitated pretty quickly to studying the Civil War, and its aftermath, when I was in college and then in graduate school. I was particularly interested in the way Americans experienced the Civil War after it was over: the sentimental novels they read; the romantic movies they watched; the reconstructed battlefields they visited. In my work as a professor at Boston University, I try to get students to think about the stories that do, and do not, get told about the Civil War and other events from the past. I suppose the question that always piqued my interest was why people might find the often wildly inaccurate versions of the past so appealing.

I wrote...

This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America

By Nina Silber,

Book cover of This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America

What is my book about?

Nina Silber deftly examines the often conflicting and politically contentious ways in which Americans remembered the Civil War era during the years of the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. In doing so, she reveals how the debates and events of that earlier period resonated so profoundly with New Deal rhetoric about state power, emerging civil rights activism, labor organizing and trade unionism, and popular culture in wartime.

At the heart of this book is an examination of how historical memory offers people a means of understanding and defining themselves in the present. Silber reveals how, during a moment of enormous national turmoil, the events and personages of the Civil War provided a framework for reassessing national identity, class conflict, and racial and ethnic division. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Why did I love 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.

By David W. Blight,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the Bancroft Prize
Winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize
Winner of the Merle Curti award
Winner of the Frederick Douglass Prize

No historical event has left as deep an imprint on America's collective memory as the Civil War. In the war's aftermath, Americans had to embrace and cast off a traumatic past. David Blight explores the perilous path of remembering and forgetting, and reveals its tragic costs to race relations and America's national reunion.In 1865, confronted with a ravaged landscape and a torn America, the North and South began a slow and painful process of reconciliation. The…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Clint Smith,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked How the Word Is Passed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A beautifully readable reminder of how much of our urgent, collective history resounds in places all around us that have been hidden in plain sight.' Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish)

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks - those that are honest about the past and those that are not - which offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in…

On Juneteenth

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of On Juneteenth

Why did I love 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.

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Interweaving American history, dramatic family chronicle and searing episodes of memoir, On Juneteenth recounts the origins of the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. A descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas in the 1850s, Annette Gordon-Reed, explores the legacies of the holiday.

From the earliest presence of black people in Texas-in the 1500s, well before enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown-to the day in Galveston on 19 June 1865, when General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery, Gordon-Reed's insightful and inspiring essays present the saga of a "frontier" peopled by…

Book cover of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Why did I love 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.

By Tony Horwitz,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Confederates in the Attic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent takes us on an explosive adventure into the soul of the unvanquished South, where Civil War reenactors, battlefield visitors, and fans of history resurrect the ghosts of the Lost Cause through ritual and remembrance.  

"The freshest book about divisiveness in America that I have read in some time. This splendid commemoration of the war and its legacy ... is an eyes–open, humorously no–nonsense survey of complicated Americans." —The New York Times Book Review

For all who remain intrigued by the legacy of the Civil War—reenactors, battlefield visitors, Confederate descendants and other Southerners,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Karen L. Cox,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked No Common Ground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When it comes to Confederate monuments, there is no common ground. Polarizing debates over their meaning have intensified into legislative maneuvering to preserve the statues, legal battles to remove them, and rowdy crowds taking matters into their own hands. These conflicts have raged for well over a century--but they've never been as intense as they are today.

In this eye-opening narrative of the efforts to raise, preserve, protest, and remove Confederate monuments, Karen L. Cox depicts what these statues meant to those who erected them and how a movement arose to force a reckoning. She lucidly shows the forces that…

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Interested in the South, slaves, and forgiveness?

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