The best books about the Union Army

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the Union Army and why they recommend each book.

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By Marilynne Robinson,

Book cover of Gilead

This gentle novel highlights the thoughts many of us would want to communicate to our children if we knew our days were numbered. Written as a letter to his young son, whom he will likely never see grow up, Reverend John Ames passes on lessons, regrets, and warnings he would tell his son himself if he lived long enough. Ames’ deep love for his much younger wife, and his concern about his best friend’s son, Jack, a ne’er do well, depict the power of intergenerational relationships to shape us and woo us into each other’s stories. I return often to this novel.

Who am I?

Because of the presence of my four beloved grandparents throughout my growing up years, (all four of my grandparents even attended my wedding), I’ve always enjoyed relationships with older people. My comfort with older people translates into my friendships where many of the women in my life are quite a bit older than me. These intergenerational relationships offer wisdom and experience that informs my own life. I hold an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and have written one novel for adults and one for middle-grade readers. My past jobs include being a television engineer, an adjunct professor, and a publishing professional.

I wrote...

The Forgotten Life of Eva Gordon

By Linda MacKillop,

Book cover of The Forgotten Life of Eva Gordon

What is my book about?

Eva wants to run away from her life—if only she could remember how. Failing memory has forced Eva Gordon to move in with her granddaughter, Breezy, but Eva hates the bustle of Boston. She just wants to move back to quiet Cape Cod and be left alone. Then Breezy announces she's getting married, and they'll be moving to her new husband's rundown family farm, where he lives with an elderly uncle. 

It's all too much for Eva, but as her desire for privacy collides with her worsening memory, Eva finds herself in a poignant, hilarious, and intergenerational rescue effort to save her from herself. Can an unlikely cast of misfit characters step in to woo Eva from self-imposed isolation?

Banners at Shenandoah

By Bruce Catton,

Book cover of Banners at Shenandoah: A Story of Sheridan's Fighting Cavalry

Catton was one of the Civil War’s great historians, best known for bringing the stories of individual soldiers into otherwise sweeping accounts of the American Iliad. Amid this work, he also wrote this little-known short novel, published in 1955, which today probably would be filed in the “young adult” section of your favorite bookstore. It tells the tale of Bob Hayden, a Michigan boy who lies about his age to join a volunteer company and rises to manhood while serving in Virginia with Gen. “Fighting Phil” Sheridan.

Who am I?

John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, a writer for National Review, and the host of two book-themed podcasts, The Great Books and The Bookmonger. His books include The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football and Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas. He lives on a dirt road in rural Michigan.

I wrote...

The First Assassin

By John J. Miller,

Book cover of The First Assassin

What is my book about?

As the United States teeters on the brink of Civil War and death threats pour into the White House, Col. Charles P. Rook takes on the responsibility of presidential protection. Meanwhile, a mysterious killer hired by a secessionist leader slips into Washington, D.C., seeking to murder Abraham Lincoln. As the bodies pile up, Rook realizes that he’s caught in a dangerous game with a cold-blooded killer who will stop at nothing to complete his mission. His best hope is Portia, a runaway slave who holds the key to the assassin’s identity—if only she can stay alive long enough to deliver it. Packed with dynamic characters, rich period detail, and a sinister villain, The First Assassin is a riveting thriller for fans of historical fiction. Praise from Vince Flynn: “An excellent book—it’s like The Day of the Jackal, set in 1861 Washington.”

The Iron Brigade

By Alan T. Nolan,

Book cover of The Iron Brigade: A Military History

Named one of the “Top 100 Civil War Books” by the Centennial Commission, this records the history of the most famous Union unit of the war. Nolan uses many first-person accounts to ensure accuracy; Service with The Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers being predominant. This book first inspired my interest in studying the Civil War, and sparked my special admiration for Rufus Dawes, eventually leading to the creation of my own book, To My Best Girl – Courage, Honor and Love in the Civil War: The Inspiring Life Stories of Rufus Dawes and Mary Gates.

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”.

The Only Gold

By Tamara Allen, Cory Clubb (illustrator),

Book cover of The Only Gold

I’ve read this m/m romance multiple times for many reasons. First, it takes place in NYC. Second, both characters are working men (no dukes or millionaires!!) and Third, it is a hot, hot, hot enemies to lovers romance that gives the reader a vibrant picture of both the banking business at the end of the nineteenth century, but also tons of fascinating details about daily life and work culture. 

My favorite part of this story is the development of the relationship between the two leads. Both Jonah and Reid practically leap off the page. I love having an anal-retentive control freak paired with a charming, easy-going rogue.

Who am I?

I adore romance in all its forms. I’ll read Viking romance, contemporary rom-coms, alien adventure, and fantastical, magical shifter tales to romances that take place in prison or an equipment rental store. But my first love will always be Regency romance, which is probably why I’ve also chosen to write it. The stories that are always closest to my heart, no matter the subgenre, are the ones that succeed in breaking the mold. The five books on this list are only the beginning of the wonderful, unusual historical romances that are waiting for intrepid readers. Happy reading!

I wrote...

The Footman

By Minerva Spencer,

Book cover of The Footman

What is my book about?

The Footman is a Regency Era romance novel that turns traditional tropes on its head. For once, the footman hero in the novel really is a footman, and not a nobleman in disguise…

Publishers Weekly compared The Footman to The Count Of Monte Cristo and awarded The Footman a coveted starred review, calling it “riveting” and concluding that, “Lovers of historical romance will be hooked on this twisty story of revenge, redemption, and reversal of fortunes.”

Harriet Tubman

By Catherine Clinton,

Book cover of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

This non-fiction book is giving Harriet Tubman the recognition she deserves. She was a hero in the true sense, who lived a life of service to others, and truly helped change the world. We have all heard of her, but few know who she really was, how much she did, and how incredibly brave she was.

Sometimes when I’m having a hard time, I think of how much she did all by herself, literally walking alone into enemy territory to save others, and leading an army of men. I could never compare myself to her, but thinking of her inspires me and gives me courage. 

Who am I?

I love to write stories about people who lived during pivotal times in history. I’m intrigued by what people were thinking and why they thought that way. People, just like us now, were a product of their time and circumstance. They had strong opinions about the issues of the day, and debated fiercely. It’s these conversations and opinions that help me make the past come alive. Being born and raised in Sweden, and having been a New Yorker for thirty years, I was awarded the 2021 Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) New York’s Scholarship for the artistic promotion of Swedish culture and history in New York.

I wrote...

Sour Milk in Sheep's Wool

By Helen Lundström Erwin,

Book cover of Sour Milk in Sheep's Wool

What is my book about?

Sour Milk in Sheep’s Wool is about my own family history. When I was growing up, my parents used to take me to a park and a castle where they said my great-grandmother had lived. It was there, they said, she lived with her two children, even though she never married their father. My imagination was set alight, and I kept wondering what her life had been like. However, family lore had colored her story, and the circumstances were not as romantic as I thought. There were secrets, and more children than we knew.

Sour Milk in Sheep’s Wool is the parallel story of two women living very different lives, but who each in their own way, fight for the rights of all women.

The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

By Ambrose Bierce,

Book cover of The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Unlike so many writers, Bierce had actual Civil War experience, as a Union soldier who saw action in a number of key battles. His stories are characterized by a rigorous attention to detail. But Bierce enjoyed serving up verisimilitude with a twist. A strong sense of the macabre, rivaling Poe, is present in some of Bierce’s finest stories such as “Chickamauga,” “One of the Missing,” and “Parker Adderson, Philosopher.” His timeless “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” features one of the most mind-bending twists in all of fiction.

Who am I?

My specialty is American history, meticulously researched, but delivered in a narrative style that’s akin to fiction. My latest book, A Fierce Glory, is about Antietam, a battle that occupied a single day in 1862, yet remains one of history’s most consequential events. Of course, there are countless military histories of Antietam–or any Civil War battle, for that matter–focusing on troop movements and tactics. I wanted to get at the emotional heart of this epic showdown: the confusion, terror, sadness, along with some startling and selfless acts of heroism. To do so, I drew inspiration from some of my favorite fictional works.

I wrote...

A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

By Justin Martin,

Book cover of A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

What is my book about?

This is a character-rich, modern-style account of an 1862 Civil War battle that was more important than Gettysburg and—with a death toll of 3,650 soldiers—remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. Had the South won, we’d likely be living in two separate nations today. Because it was a Northern victory instead, though by the slimmest of margins, Lincoln chose to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, imbuing the war effort with a new and noble purpose–freeing the slaves. Lincoln is woven deeply into this tale, far more than in a standard military history of the battle. The rich cast also includes generals George McClellan and Robert E. Lee, medical pioneers Clara Barton and Jonathan Letterman, and Alexander Gardner, the groundbreaking photographer.

The Hard Hand of War

By Mark Grimsley,

Book cover of The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861 - 1865

If Campbell’s book places Sherman and his strategy and tactics in the context of female Confederate resistance, Grimsley — one of the nation’s most innovative thinkers and writers of military history — places Sherman’s thinking and actions in the context of the evolution of the United States’ treatment of Confederate civilians.

The Lincoln administration policy in the beginning, notes Grimsley, was “to exempt white Southerners from the burdens of war.” But by 1864, a “hard war” policy, embracing attacks upon and/or confiscation of Southern civilians’ property, had become the guiding military policy of the United States.

Sherman’s inventive, carefully planned March embodied that policy. His goal of targeted destruction was designed to leave more than mere hardship in its wake. His army left its victims in terror, humiliation, and despair that contributed directly to the United States’ victory.

Who am I?

I was fated to write about war. Born on Guam to a Navy hospital corpsman and his intrepid wife, I spent four years on tank-littered beaches of Saipan and sailed to Japan on a U.S. Navy LST at the age of seven. When I graduated from college with a major in journalism, a Navy man, the late great Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson hired me as his press secretary, and we talked military history even as he made it in Afghanistan. Thirty-three years later, I went back to school for an MA in History. As I write, my great grandfather’s bugle from the Spanish-American War and the flag that covered my father’s coffin at his Arlington Cemetery funeral sit atop my shelves of military history books.

I wrote...

Lincoln's Generals' Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War--For Better and for Worse

By Candice Shy Hooper,

Book cover of Lincoln's Generals' Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War--For Better and for Worse

What is my book about?

The story of the Civil War is not complete without examining the extraordinary lives of Jessie Frémont, Nelly McClellan, Ellen Sherman, and Julia Grant, wives of Abraham Lincoln’s top generals.

Once shots were fired on Fort Sumter, these four women were launched out of their private lives into a wholly different universe, where their relationships with their husbands and their personal opinions of the President of the United States had national and historical consequences. Using letters, memoirs, and other primary sources—and, for the first time, mapping their wartime travels—I explore the very different ways in which these remarkable women responded to the unique challenges of being Lincoln’s generals’ wives. Published in 2016, my book won three national awards.

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