7 Essential Books on the Civil War

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam

William Faulkner once wrote,

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet…

He’s, of course, referring to Pickett’s charge — General Robert E. Lee’s “desperate gamble” — on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg. Neither side knew it at the time, but the Union victory at Gettysburg probably decided the war, though it would continue for almost two more years.

Sometimes, it feels like it’s “not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon” for both northerners and southerners. We still seem to be fighting the Civil War in contemporary America. It may have ended in 1865, but the wounds are still fresh. Just recently, we’ve been debating how we should remember Confederate leaders and whether or not the war was preventable. And we continue to try to understand our past as a slaveholding society.

Having just written a book on Robert E. Lee, I thought now might be a good time to step back and recommend seven essential books on the Civil War. With well over 50,000 books written on the subject, a definitive list is impossible. These books, however, are outstanding starting points.

1. Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
This Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative will appeal to anyone interested in the Civil War. In a recent interview, McPherson said, “To understand the society in which they live, Americans need to understand how it got that way, and the Civil War determined a large part of how it got that way.” This book has been helping Americans better understand the Civil War for 30 years now.

McPherson is an outstanding historian who also happens to be a fine writer. In Battle Cry, there are insightful portraits of McClellan, Lincoln, Grant, and other important figures. Despite being almost 900 pages with lots of footnotes, it reads like a thriller. An early reviewer of the book in The New York Times wrote, “Mr. McPherson is wonderfully lucid. Again and again, hopelessly knotty subjects (for example, Lincoln’s relations with the radical Republicans) are painlessly made clear.”

2. Freedom National by James Oakes
President Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural address, stated that, “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” James Oakes, in this excellent book, recognizes the central importance of slavery in the war, and focuses on the origins and implementation of the abolition of slavery in the United States.

In his provocative and compelling account of emancipation, Oakes argues that Republicans, from the very beginning, “insisted that slavery was the cause of the rebellion, and emancipation an appropriate and ultimately indispensable means of suppressing it.” Oakes also persuasively shows that destroying slavery turned out to be much more difficult than everyone expected. The great historian of American slavery, David Brion Davis, has written of this book, “Oakes brilliantly succeeds in distilling from a great mass of facts a series of clear themes and arguments that provide a new perspective on one of the central events in American history.”

3. This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust
This creative and moving book is “about the work of death in the American Civil War.” Chapters are titled “Dying,” “Killing,” “Accounting,” etc., and each one offers an incredible amount of information on the specific area relating to death. Readers learn that the survivors of the war “lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss.”

The chapter on “Burying” is especially haunting. We’re told that 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.” One boy remembered, according to Faust, that everyone went around with peppermint oil to counteract the smell of the carnage. One of the enduring results of the Civil War is that the government had to take over responsibility for the burials of fallen soldiers. This gem of a book provides us with many different ways of viewing the war.

4. The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book, by one of America’s finest historians, traces the evolution of Lincoln’s “ideas in the context of the broad antislavery impulse and the unprecedented crisis the United States confronted during his adult life.” It’s extremely well-written and based on a mastery of the source materials.

Foner focuses on Lincoln’s tremendous capacity for growth, writing “Lincoln’s career was a process of moral and political education and deepening antislavery conviction.” Of The Fiery Trial, David Brion Davis writes, “While many thousands of books deal with Lincoln and slavery, Eric Foner has written the definitive account of this crucial subject, illuminating in a highly original and profound way the interactions of race, slavery, public opinion, politics, and Lincoln’s own character that led to the wholly improbable uncompensated emancipation of some four million slaves.”

5. A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton
No list of Civil War books would be complete without something by Bruce Catton — one of the finest writers of history for a general audience. This one, a narrative account of the Army of the Potomac from the Wilderness to Appomattox, won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

I’m in awe of Catton’s writing. Here he is on the opening hours of the Battle of the Wilderness:

The whole Wilderness seemed to be boiling and smoking, with dense clouds going up to blot out the sunlight. From the rear, Warren pushed the rest of his corps into the fight, and there is no coherent story to be told about any of it: it was all violent confusion, with occasional revealing glimpses to be had in the infernal clogged mist.

And here he is on Grant at the end of the second day in the Wilderness, “The army had rubbed elbows with sheer catastrophe that night and Grant knew it, and when he was alone he could be as much tormented by suspense as anyone else.” This book is good history and outstanding storytelling. I can’t recommend it enough.

6. Lincoln’s Code by John Fabian Witt
 In December 1862, Francis Lieber was asked to draft a “code of regulations” drawn from the “laws and usages of war.” He eventually produced a code consisting of 157 articles covering a wide variety of rules and regulations relating to war. In May 1863, Lieber’s code, “General Orders №100,” was approved by President Lincoln. Witt argues that Lieber’s creation had a significant impact on the Civil War and still affects the law of war in the 21st century.

This is a fascinating and important book that allows the reader to analyze the main events of the war from a legal perspective. For example, Witt shows how Lieber’s work gave legal sanction to the Emancipation Proclamation, even though his code was primarily designed to establish limits on waging war. This outstanding work also provides the reader with a framework for understanding the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.

7. Race and Reunion by David Blight
This book is about how Americans remembered the Civil war in the fifty years or so after 1865. Blight explores “the ways that contending memories clashed or intermingled in public memory…” During this time, we see the emergence of the Lost Cause tradition, which became extremely popular in both the North and South.

Race and Reunion is particularly relevant right now, as Americans reevaluate the ways in which they remember Confederate leaders. David Blight, who has a book coming out on Frederick Douglass in October 2018, is one of the leading public historians in America today.

In a future post, I’ll suggest several books on Civil War military history. For now, I recommend Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears; The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 by Gordon Rhea; and General Lee’s Army by Joseph Glatthaar.

John Reeves is the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee.