The American Civil War, between 1861 and 1865, was one of the bloodiest wars in American History, resulting in the loss of roughly 620,000 lives. There have been tens of thousands of books written on the civil war ranging from fiction stories to non-fiction. Let’s take a look at the 10 best books on the civil war. To understand our history allows us to understand our present circumstances. History is said to repeat itself, and understanding our past allows us to move forward with more foresight. History, especially in the form of stories and books, offers us tales of hope, courage, and humility. These stories show us that no matter how bad things have gotten at one point or another, people eventually come together and work towards building a better future.
1. Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
Battle Cry Of Freedom is a fast-paced Pulitzer-prize winning narrative that reads like a thriller, with suspense, action, and a recounting of the events that led up to the civil war, as well as the war itself. McPherson is an incredible historian who expertly sourced his facts for this 900+ page volume. Students in universities study the Civil War by reading Battle Cry of Freedom, which is why this makes the number one spot on this list as one of the best books on civil war. A must-read for those who are brand new to learning about the American Civil War, as well as those who have studied it at length.
“The book’s title refers to the sentiments that informed both the Northern and Southern views of the conflict: the South seceded in the name of that freedom of self-determination and self-government for which their fathers had fought in 1776, while the North stood fast in defense of the Union founded by those fathers as the bulwark of American liberty. Eventually, the North had to grapple with the underlying cause of the war–slavery–and adopt a policy of emancipation as a second war aim. This “new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln called it, constitutes the proudest legacy of America’s bloodiest conflict.”
2. The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant
You can’t get a much closer account of certain aspects of the Civil War than from the mouth and brain of the commanding officer of the Union Army, as well as the 18th President of the United States. This two-volume memoir is thoughtfully written, insightful, and provides a unique glimpse into the life of a president and someone who was viewed as one of the greatest generals during a very tumultuous time for the United States. Ulysses S. Grant finished writing his memoir before succumbing to cancer. He was one of the most influential and prominent men during this time, and was able to share his version of life and war.
3. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Winner of the Lincoln Prize, Team of Rivals by acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, provides a unique perspective on the political genius of Abraham Lincoln. This biography focuses on Lincoln’s leadership skills and how those skills shaped one of the most significant presidencies within United States history.
“That Lincoln succeeded, Goodwin demonstrates, was the result of a character that had been forged by experiences that raised him above his more privileged and accomplished rivals. He won because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. It was this capacity that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.”
4. A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton
The National Book Award for excellence and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Stillness at Appomattox, takes you on a journey through the various battles during the Civil War, such as the Wilderness, The Bloody Angle, all the way up to a specific moment at Appomattox. Bruce Catton writes incredible works about history in a way that a general audience can appreciate.
5. This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
This unique and interesting book, This Republic of Suffering, discusses death during the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of people died during the war which left an impact on individuals, but also on the collective. In a chapter titled “Burying,” Faust discusses the scene after the Battle of Gettysburg. “An estimated six million pounds of human and animal carcasses lay strewn across the field in the summer heat, and a town of 2,400 grappled with 22,000 wounded who remained alive but in desperate condition.” If that doesn’t describe the grief, trauma, and dire circumstances of the civil war, I’m not sure what does.
6. Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears
Sears is the award-winning, national bestseller author of Gettysburg. Chancellorsville is a “tour de force” in military history, offering a definitive account of the Chancellorsville campaign. Library Journal noted that this story is “a stunning analysis of how terrain, personality, chance, and other factors affect fighting and distort strategic design.” While the Chicago Tribune called it “the finest and most provocative Civil War historian writing today.”
7. The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville by Wiley Sword
Winner of the Fletcher Pratt Award for best work of nonfiction about the Civil War, the Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, written by Wiley Sword, tells the story of the rise of Civil War general John Bell Hood, his command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, as well as what led to its downfall. Kirkus Reviews shares that “Sword compellingly recreates the heroism, missed chances, political backbiting, and flawed rebel leadership underlying the outcome at these killing grounds… Narrated with brisk attention to the nuances of strategy–and with measured solemnity over the waste of life in war.”
8. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse by Joseph Glaathaar
General Lee’s Army, written by historian Joseph Glaathaar, who spent more than 20 years researching anything and everything about General Lee’s army, is a masterpiece of storytelling and scholarship, sharing the history and fate of Lee’s army. Knowing the history of Lee’s army provides a powerful lens on the entire war. It challenges old beliefs about the war and why the men fought, why the South almost won, and ultimately, why they lost.
9. Race and Reunion: The Civil War In American Memory by David Blight
Race and Reunion, written by a history professor, David Blight, at Yale University, is a book about how Americans remembered the Civil War in the 50 years or so after 1865. This subfield of American Civil War memory studies has grown in popularity over the last few decades. Paul Henry Rosenberg of the Philadelphia City Paper wrote that “denying that the South fought for slavery [in the Civil War] was a key element in a decades-long ideological battle eventually settled in a devil’s bargain: reconciliation between whites North and South, purchased at the price of racial segregation. The story of how that bargain was struck is told by historian David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory…Race and Reunion is a deeply unsettling, pioneering work that raises far more questions than it can possibly answer: questions that should continue to trouble us…The myths and lies forged over a century ago still have us locked in their chains.”
10. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Cold Mountain is an incredibly popular fiction book that was adapted into a movie. The National Book Award winner is “one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a masterpiece that is at once an enthralling adventure, a stirring love story, and a luminous evocation of a vanished America in all its savagery, solitude, and splendor.”
There are an incredible amount of books and media focused on the Civil War. This list is anything but exhaustive, yet it is a great jumping-off point into the bloody history of our nation.