100 books like The War Before the War

By Andrew Delbanco,

Here are 100 books that The War Before the War fans have personally recommended if you like The War Before the War. Shepherd is a community of 11,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

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Book cover of Ordeal of the Union, Vol. 1: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852

James Traub Author Of What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea

From my list on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a journalist and NYU professor whose primary field is American foreign policy. As a biographer, however, I am drawn to American history and, increasingly, to the history of liberalism. I am now writing a biography of that arch-liberal, Hubert Humphrey. My actual subject thus appears to be wars of ideas. I began reading in-depth about the 1850s, when the question of slavery divided the nation in half, while writing a short biography of Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy. (Judah Benjamin: Counselor To The Confederacy will be published in October.) It was the decade in which the tectonic fault upon which the nation was built erupted to the surface. There's a book for me in there somewhere, but I haven't yet found it.

James' book list on the run-up to the American Civil War

James Traub Why did James love this book?

The epic, multi-volume work of one of America's great mid-century historians. An old-fashioned work of immense erudition, vivid narrative, decisive judgment. Never before or since have so many great and consequential speeches been delivered in Congress; Nevins furnishes every one of them with suitable embellishment. Vols. 2-4 (in the 8-volume version) offer wonderful set pieces on the great events of the time--the Kansas-Nebraska debate, the Dred Scott case, the rise and election of Abraham Lincoln.

By Allan Nevins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ordeal of the Union, Vol. 1 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Classic study of how and why the Civil War came about.


Book cover of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Jerome Slater Author Of Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1917-2020

From my list on why it took so long for Lincoln to end slavery.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a life-long admirer of Abe Lincoln, and never more so than today when American democracy is again under severe threat. Yet, like so many other admirers of Lincoln, I am puzzled why it took him so long to end slavery: it was not until January 1, 1963, nearly two years after he became president, that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only those slaves within the Confederacy. Moreover, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War that Lincoln was able to enforce emancipation in the South, and it wasn’t until the passage of the 13th Amendment at the end of 1865 that all slavery was ended.

Jerome's book list on why it took so long for Lincoln to end slavery

Jerome Slater Why did Jerome love this book?

If you can read only one book on Lincoln, this is the one I would choose. In my opinion—as well as that of many professional historians—it is the best book ever written to examine why Lincoln waited two years after becoming president to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. In this brilliant and elegantly written book, a Pulitzer Prize historian argues, entirely convincingly, that the need to keep together his pro-union coalition required Lincon to proceed very cautiously.

To be sure, Foner writes that while Lincoln’s long-held anti-slavery convictions were not in doubt, he also initially shared the racist attitudes that black people were not ready for full freedom. However, Foner emphasizes that as Lincoln grew in office, his beliefs increasingly moved towards those of Frederick Douglass—whom Lincoln came to greatly admire—and other full-fledged abolitionists.

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Fiery Trial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, this landmark work gives us a definitive account of Lincoln's lifelong engagement with the nation's critical issue: American slavery. A master historian, Eric Foner draws Lincoln and the broader history of the period into perfect balance. We see Lincoln, a pragmatic politician grounded in principle, deftly navigating the dynamic politics of antislavery, secession, and civil war. Lincoln's greatness emerges from his capacity for moral and political growth.


Book cover of Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

James Traub Author Of What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea

From my list on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a journalist and NYU professor whose primary field is American foreign policy. As a biographer, however, I am drawn to American history and, increasingly, to the history of liberalism. I am now writing a biography of that arch-liberal, Hubert Humphrey. My actual subject thus appears to be wars of ideas. I began reading in-depth about the 1850s, when the question of slavery divided the nation in half, while writing a short biography of Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy. (Judah Benjamin: Counselor To The Confederacy will be published in October.) It was the decade in which the tectonic fault upon which the nation was built erupted to the surface. There's a book for me in there somewhere, but I haven't yet found it.

James' book list on the run-up to the American Civil War

James Traub Why did James love this book?

Americans experienced a kind of practice round of the Civil War when both Southern and  Northern settlers flocked into Kansas--the first determined to make it a slave state, the second, a free one. The savage political and military conflict left both sides convinced that the nation could not, in fact, survive half slave and half free. Bleeding Kansas, though a work of serious scholarship, draws heavily on the letters and diaries of those settlers to depict an irreconcilable clash of rival ideologies, ambitions, characters; you would not want to be caught in a bar with the drunken lowlifes who poured across the border from Missouri to rig elections on behalf of slave-owners.

By Nicole Etcheson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Few people would have expected bloodshed in Kansas Territory. After all, it had few slaves and showed few signs that slavery would even flourish. But civil war tore this territory apart in the 1850s and 60s, and "Bleeding Kansas" became a forbidding symbol for the nationwide clash over slavery that followed.

Many free-state Kansans seemed to care little about slaves, and many proslavery Kansans owned not a single slave. But the failed promise of the Kansas-Nebraska Act-when fraud in local elections subverted the settlers' right to choose whether Kansas would be a slave or free state-fanned the flames of war.…


Book cover of "There Is a North": Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War

James Traub Author Of What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea

From my list on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a journalist and NYU professor whose primary field is American foreign policy. As a biographer, however, I am drawn to American history and, increasingly, to the history of liberalism. I am now writing a biography of that arch-liberal, Hubert Humphrey. My actual subject thus appears to be wars of ideas. I began reading in-depth about the 1850s, when the question of slavery divided the nation in half, while writing a short biography of Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy. (Judah Benjamin: Counselor To The Confederacy will be published in October.) It was the decade in which the tectonic fault upon which the nation was built erupted to the surface. There's a book for me in there somewhere, but I haven't yet found it.

James' book list on the run-up to the American Civil War

James Traub Why did James love this book?

Southerners rarely spoke of "the South" until slavery began to be threatened in the 1840s; slavery made the South. The North was far more fragmented--until an anti-slavery culture took hold in the 1850s. Brooke is highly sensitive to the role of popular culture in forging that consensus--not just Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most influential novel in American history, but local theatricals and the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier. Here was the original, unbridgeable division between red and blue states.

By John L. Brooke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked "There Is a North" as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How does political change take hold? In the 1850s, politicians and abolitionists despaired, complaining that the "North, the poor timid, mercenary, driveling North" offered no forceful opposition to the power of the slaveholding South. And yet, as John L. Brooke proves, the North did change. Inspired by brave fugitives who escaped slavery and the cultural craze that was Uncle Tom's Cabin, the North rose up to battle slavery, ultimately waging the bloody Civil War.

While Lincoln's alleged quip about the little woman who started the big war has been oft-repeated, scholars have not fully explained the dynamics between politics and…


Book cover of South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War

Ann Marie Jackson Author Of The Broken Hummingbird

From my list on Americans learning to live in Mexico.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am fascinated by the places where cultures intersect and the means by which they do so. I am an American lucky to live in gorgeous San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and previously in Hirakata, Japan; Shanghai, China; Suva, Fiji; and Oxford, England. Each move entailed a challenging but rewarding effort to absorb a new set of unwritten societal rules. A great way to grow is to immerse yourself in the unknown and have things you took for granted about how the world works suddenly come into question. Another is to learn from those who have gone before us, so I am delighted to share these wonderful books with you.

Ann's book list on Americans learning to live in Mexico

Ann Marie Jackson Why did Ann love this book?

South to Freedom tells the relatively unknown story of Americans who moved to Mexico for the most existential of reasons: to flee slavery in the 1840s-1850s.

Although Mexico has its own history of slavery, it abolished that evil earlier than the United States did, and this book provides accounts of Mexican officials and ordinary citizens risking their lives to protect fugitive slaves from pursuing slaveholders.

Southern states believed that annexing Texas and invading Mexico would ensure slavery's continuation, but as Baumgartner shows, those actions were instead among the proximate causes of the Civil War. Baumgartner’s important book enhances the sanitized version of Civil War history I learned in school and sheds light on this noble aspect of Mexican history.

By Alice L. Baumgartner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked South to Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "gripping and poignant" (Wall Street Journal) account of the coming of the American Civil War, showing the crucial role of slaves who escaped to Mexico

The Underground Railroad to the North promised salvation to many American slaves before the Civil War. But thousands of people in the south-central United States escaped slavery not by heading north but by crossing the southern border into Mexico, where slavery was abolished in 1837.

In South to Freedom, prize-winning historian Alice L. Baumgartner tells the story of why Mexico abolished slavery and how its increasingly radical antislavery policies fueled the sectional crisis in…


Book cover of Soul Catcher

Robert J. Begiebing Author Of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

From my list on British and American historical fiction, 1850-1960.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m the author of ten books, including fiction, memoir, collected journalism, and criticism. My novels are historical fiction, hence my decision to make my recommendations within that genre, mostly. My own historical novels comprise a tetralogy beginning with The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin and ending with The Turner Erotica, so the series takes the reader roughly from 1648 to 1900. The second book chronologically in the series, Rebecca Wentworth’s Distraction, won the 2003 Langum Prize for historical fiction. Retired now, I was the founding director of the MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University.

Robert's book list on British and American historical fiction, 1850-1960

Robert J. Begiebing Why did Robert love this book?

This historical novel is set just before the American Civil War. What singles it out is not the theme—the struggle of an African American slave and mother, Rosetta, for her freedom. More unusual is White’s courageous depiction of the full yet flawed humanity of her slave (“soul”) catcher, Augustus Cain, as Rosetta flees her inhumane conditions in Virginia enroute to Boston. Cain is one of the best at what he does, but the journey both characters endure also brings both toward mutual compassion and redemption. Though published in 2007, the book fits perfectly into, and helps to amplify further, our current awakening to our historical racism and the vast suffering white Americans have inflicted on their Black brothers and sisters. 

By Michael C. White,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Augustus Cain is a man with his back against the wall. A war-scarred wanderer, he faces a past he wants to forget, a present without prospect or fortune, and an uncertain future marred by the loss of his most prized possession - his horse - which he has carelessly gambled away. But he is not without skill - he has an uncanny, if unwelcome, ability to track the most elusive runaway slaves. And to repay a debt and keep his horse, he must head north from Virginia and retrieve a runaway named Rosetta. When he eventually runs Rosetta to ground…


Book cover of Wench

Kinley Bryan Author Of The Lost Women of Mill Street

From my list on American Civil War great female leads.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historical novelist originally from Ohio. In Civil War lessons at school, we learned about battles and generals and read The Red Badge of Courage and other books centering on men’s experiences. With the exception of Florence Nightingale, women were largely absent from the discussions. I want to know about the women. As an adult, I lived in Roswell, Georgia, where I learned of the mill workers, mostly women and children, who, in 1864, were arrested and sent north by Federal forces for making Confederate cloth. Their fates largely remain a mystery, and I wrote my book in order to imagine what we may never know.

Kinley's book list on American Civil War great female leads

Kinley Bryan Why did Kinley love this book?

Set just prior to the Civil War, this novel is one I’ve often recommended since first reading it years ago. The novel’s four main characters, enslaved mistresses of Southern men, are well-rendered and complex and stayed with me long after I finished the book. I was drawn by the women’s distinct personalities and how they responded to the harsh realities of their lives.

The novel also introduced me to a piece of my home state’s history: Tawawa House was a summer resort in southwestern Ohio popular among southern planters who brought their enslaved mistresses despite Ohio being a free state. (The resort would later become the site of Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest private, historically black university owned and operated by African Americans.)

By Dolen Perkins-Valdez,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is startling and original fiction that raises provocative questions of power and freedom, love and dependence. An enchanting and unforgettable novel based on little-known fact, Wench combines the narrative allure of Cane River by Lalita Tademy and the moral complexities of Edward P. Jones’s The Known World as it tells the story of four black enslaved women in the years preceding the Civil War. A stunning debut novel, Wench marks author Perkins-Valdez—previously a finalist for the 2009 Robert Olen Butler Short Fiction Prize—as a writer destined for greatness.


Book cover of The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself

Angela Woollacott Author Of Gender and Empire

From my list on how gender helped empires to rule the world.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been teaching university courses on gender and colonialism for about thirty years. I find students engage with the stories of the daily lived reality of women and men in the past. The books on my list are ones I have assigned at universities in two different countries. It’s so powerful to read someone’s own story from centuries ago, in their own words, like that of Mary Prince. While I love to recommend fiction to history students, I’ve always been fussy about only assigning novels set in a time period and context that the author knew first-hand. It makes these stories—like Heart of Darkness, Burmese Days, and Coonardoo—truly historical evidence. 

Angela's book list on how gender helped empires to rule the world

Angela Woollacott Why did Angela love this book?

We all know that slavery was practised by many empires through world history, but it is rare to find the voice and life experience of someone who was enslaved. Literary scholar Moira Ferguson has edited and republished the memoir of Mary Prince, who was born into slavery in Bermuda but escaped in 1828 when her owners took her to London. Mary Prince found refuge with anti-slavery reformers, who wrote down and published her account of her life. I find it a searing account of how enslaved people were torn from their own families and loved ones, and the brutality of their lives in the Caribbean. Be warned: the sexual assault, violence, and cruelty are shocking. But if you want to know about slavery, this book will tell you.

By Mary Prince,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mary Prince was the first black British woman to escape from slavery and publish a record of her experiences. In this unique document, Mary Prince vividly recalls her life as a slave in Bermuda, Turks Island, and Antigua, her rebellion against physical and psychological degradation, and her eventual escape to London in 1828.

First published in London and Edinburgh in 1831, and well into its third edition that year, The History of Mary Prince inflamed public opinion and created political havoc. Never before had the sufferings and indignities of enslavement been seen through the eyes of a woman-a woman struggling…


Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Ciera Horton McElroy Author Of Atomic Family

From my list on historical fiction featuring strong women.

Why am I passionate about this?

I may be only 27, but I’ve spent years researching the Cold War. Mostly because it’s very personal to me…my grandfather was a scientist at a top-secret hydrogen bomb plant in the 1960s. I began researching to understand his work and how it affected my family. I didn’t expect to become so consumed by the sixties. The more I learned about the nuclear arms race and the protests that were led, largely, by women, the more I felt convinced that there was a story here. I’m passionate about the often untold stories of resistance—resilience—endurance. Especially women’s stories. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I do! 

Ciera's book list on historical fiction featuring strong women

Ciera Horton McElroy Why did Ciera love this book?

I am including The Underground Railroad as it’s both historical fiction and magical realism—a beautiful surrealist imagining of Civil War history. This inventive novel follows Cora, who is enslaved on a plantation in Georgia. When Cora hears of the underground railroad, she plots her escape—but in this book, the railroad is more than a secret network. It is a real, physical, underground train. Cora must fight for her life and her freedom on a harrowing journey north, evading the slave hunter Ridgeway as he seeks to track her down. Cora’s strength and independence make her a character that will stick with you.

By Colson Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Underground Railroad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOW A MAJOR TV SERIES BY BARRY JENKINS (COMING MAY 2021)

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION 2017
WINNER OF THE ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD 2017
LONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2017
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER 2016

'Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime' Guardian

'Luminous, furious, wildly inventive' Observer

'Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year' Stylist

'Dazzling' New York Review of Books

Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the…


Book cover of Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

Sylviane A. Diouf Author Of Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons

From my list on runaways and Maroons in the Americas.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a social historian of the African Diaspora. I am passionate about writing stories that have never been told. The stories I uncover detail the lives, struggles, and resistance of enslaved people. I am interested in and have written about such overlooked topics as African resistance to the transatlantic slave trade; Maroons in the American South; the experience of African Muslims enslaved throughout the Americas; and the lives of the people deported on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to the US. Much still needs to be unearthed to help form a more comprehensive history of the people who, in countless and remarkable ways, fought against their subjugation.

Sylviane's book list on runaways and Maroons in the Americas

Sylviane A. Diouf Why did Sylviane love this book?

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhaustive study of American runaways that uses a wide variety of often ignored archival material.

This great book details the reasons, the places, the profiles, the strategies, and the objectives of some of the tens of thousands of people who, each year, left the plantations behind. They included Free Blacks who had been kidnapped and managed to get away.

There is quasi nothing on Maroons but, to my delight, Franklin and Schweninger show that contrary to popular belief, most runaways did not attempt to go North but remained in the South, close to their families, or in nearby cities and towns, another county, or another state. 

By John Hope Franklin, Loren Schweninger,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From John Hope Franklin, America's foremost African American historian, comes this groundbreaking analysis of slave resistance and escape. A sweeping panorama of plantation life before the Civil War, this book reveals that slaves frequently rebelled against their masters and ran away from their plantations whenever they could.
For generations, important aspects about slave life on the plantations of the American South have remained shrouded. Historians thought, for instance, that slaves were generally pliant and resigned to their roles as human chattel, and that racial violence on the plantation was an aberration. In this precedent setting book, John Hope Franklin and…


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