The best American Civil War books

34 authors have picked their favorite books about the American Civil War and why they recommend each book.

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River Run Red

By Andrew Ward,

Book cover of River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War

More than 170,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and navy during the Civil War. From 1863 on, they performed heroically on many battlefields, most famously at the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, as dramatically depicted in the film “Glory.” Much less well-known was the deliberate slaughter of nearly two hundred black federal troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864, by Confederate forces led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a prewar slaver trader and a postwar leader of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the worst wartime atrocity committed on U.S. soil outside the Indian wars. What happened at Fort Pillow demonstrated the additional risk that every black soldier in blue faced: not just injury, but murder or reenslavement by the enemy. Ward’s account moves at a pounding pace. More than the account of a single battle, it places the role of black troops in the larger context…


Who am I?

Fergus M. Bordewich is an American writer and popular historian. He is the author of eight nonfiction books and a frequent public speaker at universities, radio, and television. As a journalist, he has traveled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, writing on politics, economic issues, culture, and history, on subjects ranging from the civil war in Burma, religious repression in China, Islamic fundamentalism, German reunification, the Irish economy, Kenya's population crisis, and many others.


I wrote...

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

By Fergus M. Bordewich,

Book cover of Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

What is my book about?

The story of how Congress helped win the Civil War that puts the House and Senate, rather than Lincoln, at the center of the conflict. This original new perspective on the Civil War overturns the popular conception that Abraham Lincoln single-handedly led the Union to victory and gives us a vivid account of the essential role Congress played in winning the war. 

The Impending Crisis

By David M. Potter,

Book cover of The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861

David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976; winner of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for History) remains, after nearly half-a-century, the best narrative on the coming of the Civil War. It brims with perceptive analysis and very usefully instructs readers about history’s vexing complications. Completed after Potter’s death by his colleague at Stanford Don E. Fehrenbacher, the engaging text forcefully reminds readers to keep in mind the contingent nature of politics and to avoid assuming events had to play out as they did. Part of the period’s complexity lay in the fact that although the crisis of 1860-1861 had everything to do with slavery’s powerful influence over American political affairs, the increasingly heated rhetoric of the secession winter did not focus on whether the nation would keep or jettison the institution. Four years of war answered that fundamental question.


Who am I?

I have been captivated by the era of the American Civil War since I was ten years old at the beginning of the conflict’s centennial. I have taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Penn State University, and the University of Virginia. I have written, co-written, or edited more than 40 books on the subject. The compelling personalities, dramatic events, and profoundly important issues at stake compel my continuing attention to the war, its antecedents, and its short- and long-term impact. I recommend five classic titles on the Civil War era (one a trilogy, one a two-volume set, and three single volumes) that will reward readers in the third decade of the 21st Century.


I wrote...

The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis

By Gary W. Gallagher,

Book cover of The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis

What is my book about?

This book explores many aspects of the Civil War, including how its memory has evolved over many decades. It places our contemporary understanding of the Civil War, both popular and academic, in conversation with testimony from people in the United States and the Confederacy who experienced and described it. Put another way, the book investigates how mid-19th-century perceptions align with, or deviate from, some of those we now hold regarding the origins, conduct, and aftermath of the war.

Battle Cry of Freedom

By James M. McPherson,

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

This is hands down the best single-volume history of the Civil War. It’s so much more than a “survey” book. I am not quite sure how McPherson does it, but he manages to convey exceptional detail and nuance while sweeping through a gigantic historical landscape. Anyone interested in the Civil War should start with this book.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by the Civil War and read many books about it for pleasure over the years. Then in 2010 I decided to get serious and undertook a full-length biography of Stonewall Jackson. Four extremely intense years later I published Rebel Yell, and followed it a few years later with Hymns of the Republic, about the war’s final year. So I have spent much of the past decade doing little else but thinking about and writing about the Civil War.


I wrote...

Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

By S.C. Gwynne,

Book cover of Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

What is my book about?

The fourth and final year of the Civil War offers one of the era's most compelling narratives and one of history's great turning points. Now, Pulitzer Prize finalist S.C. Gwynne breathes new life into the epic battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant; the advent of 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army; William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea; the rise of Clara Barton; the election of 1864 (which Lincoln nearly lost); the wild and violent guerrilla war in Missouri; and the dramatic final events of the war, including Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

A Prayer for the Dying

By Stewart O'Nan,

Book cover of A Prayer for the Dying

A Prayer for the Dying is the only full-length novel I’ve ever read entirely in second-person perspective—which makes for a white-knuckle-grip adventure as the narrator drags the reader along a dark, haunted path, which is also a little bit on fire.

This ghost story full of living people (at first) follows a hard-working and dedicated protagonist who tries to protect his little town of Friendship as it faces disaster after horrible disaster. The narrative of the story unfurls like a tidal wave—terrifying, yet impossible to look away from as it sweeps away everything in its path. This scary story is definitely not for the faint of heart.


Who am I?

I’ve been reading and writing stories for as long as I can remember—and the weird ones have always been my favorite. I discovered many of my favorite books by wandering into my local library, telling the librarian about my strange reading interests, and allowing them to set me up with literary masterpieces of the most unusual kind. Once I knew how to bend the rules of genre and form to create something original, I took to creating my own weird stories, and have been doing so ever since in my novels, short stories, D&D characters, and bedtime stories for my bird.

I wrote...

Wyrforra (Wyrforra Wars)

By McKenna Miller,

Book cover of Wyrforra (Wyrforra Wars)

What is my book about?

When an army of unknown invaders attack, the United States - and perhaps the whole world - finds itself woefully unprepared. The deadliest part of the planet-wide assault is not how swift and ruthless the attackers are, but rather the fear that these people aren't quite human.

For a thrilling ride on a post-apocalyptic emotional rollercoaster, dive into Wyrforra and see if humanity is ready for a global attack from within.

The War for the Common Soldier

By Peter S. Carmichael,

Book cover of The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies

Accounts of the common soldier are part of a long tradition in Civil War history—but this is not your typical study. Carmichael sets out not to examine motivations or ideology, but to explore "the life of the rank and file as it was lived." The war forced soldiers in the North and South to bridge the gulf between two competing impulses. "Sentimentalism" helped soldiers understand war as a series of hardships and sacrifices that could be endured through faith, courage, and patriotism. Confronting this conventional approach was a "pragmatism" that guided soldiers desperately seeking to survive with honor the filth, blood, and despair that they actually experienced. Carmichael makes his argument through careful, moving, and fascinating narratives of men trying to explain the war to their loved ones and to themselves.


Who am I?

A long-time professor of history at Marquette University, James Marten is a past president of both the Society of Civil War Historians and the Society for the History of Children and Youth. He’s written or edited over twenty books and scores of articles and has been interviewed on National and Wisconsin Public Radio and for numerous local and national publications. He writes about the ways in which big events affect normal people, from children and families to soldiers and veterans.


I wrote...

The Children's Civil War

By James Marten,

Book cover of The Children's Civil War

What is my book about?

Children--white and black, northern and southern--endured a vast and varied range of experiences during the Civil War. Children celebrated victories and mourned defeats, tightened their belts and widened their responsibilities, took part in patriotic displays and suffered shortages and hardships, fled their homes to escape enemy invaders, and snatched opportunities to run toward the promise of freedom.

Offering a fascinating look at how children were affected by our nation's greatest crisis, James Marten examines their toys and games, their literature and schoolbooks, the letters they exchanged with absent fathers and brothers, and the hardships they endured. He also explores children's politicization, their contributions to their homelands' war efforts, and the lessons they took away from the war.

The Civil War

By Shelby Foote,

Book cover of The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville

This sweeping, multi-volume history is a thoroughly researched and readable recording of the Civil War. Written as a narrative, Foote uses his informal writing style to tell the complete history from the perspective of the participants – both north and south – while involving every aspect - the military, political, diplomatic, and home fronts. In my opinion, it is the best overall account of the conflict.


Who am I?

Steve Magnusen is an officer in the Indianapolis Civil War Roundtable and holds associate membership in three other roundtables in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. He enjoyed a nationally recognized engineering and public works administration career in north suburban Chicago after receiving his degree from Purdue University. He has led several professional and non-profit organizations and served fifteen years as an infantry and armor officer in the US Army Reserve.


I wrote...

To My Best Girl: Courage, Honor, and Love in the Civil War: The Inspiring Life Stories of Rufus Dawes and Mary Gates

By Steve Magnusen,

Book cover of To My Best Girl: Courage, Honor, and Love in the Civil War: The Inspiring Life Stories of Rufus Dawes and Mary Gates

What is my book about?

History is about the stories of real people and their actions and experiences during impactful events. To My Best Girl focuses on the true drama involving two young people caught up in the brutal American Civil War - Rufus Dawes and Mary Gates. Battlefield action, daily life in an elite combat unit, parallel drama occurring at home, and trials of family and friends - all combine in a timeline narrative spanning thirty years, but primarily involving the desperate days of the war. Many authentic original letters and diaries are quoted throughout, and are also utilized to create dialog that is realistic and accurate.

To My Best Girl has been awarded the publisher’s “Award of Literary Excellence”, and was selected as a Finalist for the Independent Author Network “Book of the Year Award for History – Fiction in 2019”.

Shiloh

By Shelby Foote,

Book cover of Shiloh

Shiloh is an early novel by writer and historian, Shelby Foote, that recounts the story of this bloody battle through multiple perspectives—both Union and Confederate. Foote does a masterful job of portraying how the lives of the various narrators are interrelated, especially the lives of those in each of the armies. In addition, he illuminates just how crazed and violent the experience of the battle itself was—in contrast to the often quite rational, even humane men who fought it. The success of Shiloh also led to Foote writing his monumental three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative and playing a starring role in Ken Burns’ documentary on the war. 


Who am I?

I am a native of the mountains of Western North Carolina. My direct ancestors include six generations of mountain farmers, as well as the bootleggers, preachers, and soldiers who appear in my novels. These generations include at least six family members who fought in the Civil War. I came to understand that the war itself began primarily over slavery, one of the most shameful and hideous aspects of our history. As a reader, I admire the complexity and power of these novels. As a writer, I sought to create a story of my own that offered a form of narrative healing to those, Black and white, who suffered through the horrific years of the war. 


I wrote...

That Bright Land

By Terry Roberts,

Book cover of That Bright Land

What is my book about?

In the summer of 1866, Jacob Ballard, a former Union soldier and spy, is dispatched by the War Department in Washington City to infiltrate the isolated North Carolina mountains where he was born and find the serial killer responsible for the deaths of Union veterans. Based on true events, That Bright Land is the story of a violent and fragile nation in the wake of the Civil War and a man who must exorcise his own savage demons while tracking down another.

That Bright Land won the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award, the James Still Award for Writing About the Appalachian South, and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction.

This Hallowed Ground

By Bruce Catton,

Book cover of This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War

I picked up this book while on a study course in the United States – I was based in Washington DC and intended to visit some of the nearby Civil War battlefields, and decided that I needed to know more about the conflict. It was perhaps the first American history book I had read, and immediately I was struck by the very different style of writing when compared with European works.

For a single-volume account of a terrible conflict that did so much to shape the United States, this is probably unmatched. The people involved, from those in high-level political positions to the men and women caught up in the fighting, are brought to life in an unforgettable way.


Who am I?

"History can become a dull and uninteresting subject, but the stories of the past are far more interesting and inspiring than the very best fiction. These stories tell us about how our world came to be, and the paths that our predecessors travelled; and they show us that, despite the decades and centuries that separate us, they were driven and inspired by the same factors that drive and inspire us today." Prit Buttar was a doctor, first in the British Army and then a GP, until retiring in 2019. Less than a year later, he volunteered to go back to work during the current pandemic.


I wrote...

The Reckoning: The Defeat of Army Group South, 1944

By Prit Buttar,

Book cover of The Reckoning: The Defeat of Army Group South, 1944

What is my book about?

A detailed and engrossing account of the final year of fighting in Ukraine during World War II, making use of the extensive memoirs of German and Russian soldiers involved in the fighting, as well as partisans behind the German lines, to bring the story to life.

By the end of 1944 the Red Army was poised on the very frontiers of the Third Reich. How had the once-unstoppable, mighty Wehrmacht faltered so disastrously? Certainly it had suffered defeats before, in particular the vast catastrophe of Stalingrad, but it was in 1944 that the war was ultimately lost. It was no longer a case of if but rather when the Red Army would be at the gates of Berlin.

Tara Revisited

By Catherine Clinton,

Book cover of Tara Revisited: Women, War, & the Plantation Legend

This book completely debunks every romantic Old South and Lost Cause myth. Relying on a plethora of primary sources, especially letters and diaries, Clinton reveals the real and often heartbreaking lives of white plantation women and black enslaved women. Always an engaging writer, Clinton narrates the deep and troubled subject with empathy and a level hand. 


Who am I?

DeAnne Blanton retired from the National Archives in Washington, DC after 31 years of service as a reference archivist specializing in 18th and 19th century U.S. Army records. She was recognized within the National Archives as well as in the historical and genealogical communities as a leading authority on the American Civil War; 19th century women’s history; and the history of American women in the military.


I wrote...

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

By DeAnne Blanton, Lauren Cook,

Book cover of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

What is my book about?

Popular images of women during the American Civil War include self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, and brave ladies maintaining hearth and home in the absence of their men. However, as DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook show in their remarkable new study, that conventional picture does not tell the entire story. Hundreds of women assumed male aliases, disguised themselves in men's uniforms, and charged into battle as Union and Confederate soldiers--facing down not only the guns of the adversary but also the gender prejudices of society. They Fought Like Demons is the first book to fully explore and explain these women, their experiences as combatants, and the controversial issues surrounding their military service.

All the Daring of the Soldier

By Elizabeth D. Leonard,

Book cover of All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies

This book is the best introduction to the many women who cast off traditional gender roles, and served the armies of the Union and Confederacy as spies, vivandierres, and soldiers.  Leonard uses contemporary sources to prove that valor, complexity, and patriotism are not the sole purviews of men.  This well-written book will make readers want to find out more about the Civil War women who refused to stay in their socially-mandated place.


Who am I?

DeAnne Blanton retired from the National Archives in Washington, DC after 31 years of service as a reference archivist specializing in 18th and 19th century U.S. Army records. She was recognized within the National Archives as well as in the historical and genealogical communities as a leading authority on the American Civil War; 19th century women’s history; and the history of American women in the military.


I wrote...

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

By DeAnne Blanton, Lauren Cook,

Book cover of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

What is my book about?

Popular images of women during the American Civil War include self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, and brave ladies maintaining hearth and home in the absence of their men. However, as DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook show in their remarkable new study, that conventional picture does not tell the entire story. Hundreds of women assumed male aliases, disguised themselves in men's uniforms, and charged into battle as Union and Confederate soldiers--facing down not only the guns of the adversary but also the gender prejudices of society. They Fought Like Demons is the first book to fully explore and explain these women, their experiences as combatants, and the controversial issues surrounding their military service.

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