Books about the Civil War shed light on the cataclysmic violence that marked the United States’ darkest period of division.
After Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President, seven Southern states whose agricultural system relied on free slave labor seceded. Rejected as illegitimate by the Union, the Confederate States retaliated on April 12, 1861, by attacking Fort Sumter. Led by President Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy grew to 11 secessionist states as internal conflict boiled. The North and the South fought nearly 10,500 battles, including major stands in Gettysburg and Vicksburg. It wasn’t until April 9, 1865, that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House for a Union victory.
Reading about the Civil War helps today’s citizens understand the ferocious fight that cost an estimated 620,000 U.S. lives, more than the two World Wars combined. Civil War books detail the motivations of both sides to wage war against national unity. Their pages explore the factious issue of slavery and the effects of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on civil rights.
These books also go beyond the Reconstruction Era to depict how the Civil War’s outcome and rhetoric shaped our nation thereafter. In fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson declares that our most pressing issues over 150 years later have roots in the Civil War era.
Trust the following nonfiction literary resources for learning the truth about the “War Between the States.”
#1 – The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865
Ohio State University professor Mark Grimsley published The Hard Hand of War to research the Union’s military tactics of avoiding “total war” against the South. Grimsley argues that the Union soldiers exercised restraint against simply destroying Confederate property and culture. Through comparisons to European wars, he supports his claim that the Union sought restoration rather than destruction.
#2 – The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union
James M. McPherson
In The Negro’s Civil War, James McPherson uses letters and speeches to tell the unique war experience of African Americans in the North and South. The 366-page classic study details how their hopes and fears motivated Blacks to contribute to their own freedom. McPherson shares the stories of former slaves who valiantly joined the Union on the front lines.
#3 – The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans
The Destructive War offers a dual biography of two apocalyptic military leaders, William Tecumseh Sherman and Stonewall Jackson, who greatly influenced public thinking. Bancroft Prize-winning author Charles Royster compiles battle narratives to personify these men’s strategies and passions for patriotic bloodshed. The 564-page tome reveals truths about our national character through comparative analysis of two eccentric Generals.
#4 – How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War
Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones
Published in 1984, How the North Won is one of the most logistical Civil War books for in-depth analysis on the military tactic that fostered Union victory. Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones recreate the mid-19th century battlefield to belabor on the strategic differences between the Union and Confederacy. Readers gain unparalleled military history from Chancellorsville to Vicksburg and Fort Henry.
#5 – Mary Chesnut’s Civil War
Winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in History, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War offers a firsthand account of South Carolina’s culture from 1861 to 1865 from the wife of a prominent Senator. Her diary gives a poignant, behind-the-scenes look at aristocratic life and Southern morals throughout the War. Mary Chesnut’s words provide insightful gossip on several iconic figures, including Varina Davis, the Confederate President’s wife.
#6 – Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave
Ernest B. Furgurson
Historian Ernest B. Furgurson crafted Chancellorsville 1863 to share secrets about arguably the Confederacy’s best victory during the American Civil War. It begins with the bold plan for Union General Joe Hooker to cross the Rappahannock River and approach General Robert E. Lee’s troops. Furgurson retraces every fateful step that led to Union retreat and Hooker’s ruin.
#7 – American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War
Featuring 836 photographs in vibrant color, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bruce Catton’s epic volume depicts the magnitude of the American Civil War in stunning clarity. Readers gain eye-witness looks at the battles that chartered the war’s course. Most notably, we see the Battle of the Wilderness in which Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was pitted against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia near Washington, DC.
#8 – Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War
G.F.R. Henderson, a British Army Lieutenant Colonel, penned one of the most iconic Civil War biographies about General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1898. Henderson builds a timeline of Jackson’s military career from the Mexican War through his death at Chancellorsville. Particular attention is given to his tactical genius at Bull Run and Shenandoah. Stonewall Jackson is painted as a brilliant officer with undivided loyalty to the South.
#9 – Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam
Stephen W. Sears
Given the Fletcher Platt Award, Landscape Turned Red is a nonfiction masterpiece outlining the perils of America’s deadliest single-day battle in which 22,717 perished. Historian Stephen W. Sears immerses audiences in the powerful assaults on September 17, 1862, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Bullet-strewn pages show both Union General George McClellan’s and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s efforts that ended in a bloody draw.
#10 – Grant Takes Command: 1863-1865
Another of Bruce Catton’s books about the Civil War is Grant Takes Command, a 556-page classic about the Union Army’s enigmatic commander. Catton sketches a dramatic, revelatory portrait of Ulysses S. Grant during the last two years of the Civil War. After claiming victory at the Battle of Shiloh, Grant leads a series of well-coordinated attacks for seizing the Mississippi River and trapping Lee’s army in Richmond.
#11 – That Devil Forrest: Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest
John A. Wyeth
Names like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are easily recognized, but Civil War novices rarely hear of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. In 1989, John A. Wyeth remedied this by telling the “Wizard of the Saddle’s” story. Forrest, a brilliant military tactician, is credited with the capture of Streight’s Raiders. But he’s also accused of war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow.
#12 – Army of the Potomac Trilogy
Bruce Catton’s award-winning trilogy consists of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox to detail the Civil War’s decisive Eastern Theater. This three-part nonfiction set centers on the Northern Army’s campaigns with insight into the logic of Union Generals Judson Kilpatrick, George B. McClellan, and others. Beyond typical diary entries, Catton illuminates the daily struggles of Union solders to survive and defeat.
#13 – Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Read by Norman Dietz, Reconstruction is a compelling audiobook that chronicles how Americans reacted to unprecedented changes after the Civil War’s turbulence. Columbia University professor Eric Foner delves into post-war issues, including the emancipation of slaves, remodeling of Southern economics, and role of carpet baggers. The Parkman Prize-winning book outlines the political and social attitude shifts attributed to the Civil War.
#14 – The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861
David M. Potter
On the other end of the spectrum, David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book masterfully speaks to the chaotic changes that sparked the Civil War’s outbreak. Starting with the Wilmost Proviso in 1848, the behemoth 672-page volume traces the economic, social, and political roots of Northern and Southern aggression. Potter doesn’t gloss over details in depicting the escalating tension that caused the initial firing on Fort Sumter.
#15 – All for the Union: The Civil War Diary & Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Included in Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS documentary The Civil War, Elisa Hunt Rhodes’ diary gives a Union soldier’s eye view of the battlefield. After enlisting in 1861 at 19 years old, Rhodes fought honorably from Bull Run through Appomattox. Despite a meager $13 monthly salary, Rhodes perfectly depicts the Union’s motivations to endure the risk of combat.
#16 – A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom
Praised by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Valdosta State University professor David Williams’ 2006 book offers a sweeping historical account of the Civil War through ordinary people’s experiences. Williams shares little-known narratives from slaves, mothers, draft dodgers, Native Americans, and other forgotten voices. As a result, readers appreciate the conflict’s grander impact beyond the battlefield.
#17 – Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War
Co. Aytch is an esteemed primary Civil War resource written by Sam Watkins, a Confederate foot soldier of the First Tennessee Infantry, “Company H.” Watkins recalls the pride and misery of fighting in legendary battles like Chattanooga and Shelbyville. He also shares the horror of being one of seven men left alive when General Johnson’s Army surrendered to General Sherman in North Carolina in 1865.
#18 – The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero
National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan crafted The Immortal Irishman to tell the colorful, plot-twisting story of Thomas Francis Meagher. After leading a failed uprising in Ireland during the Great Famine, Meagher narrowly escapes prison for refuge in New York. There the revolutionary forms the Irish Brigade and participates in several of the Civil War’s fiercest battles, including Antietam.
#19 – Up from Slavery
Booker T. Washington
Abolitionist Booker T. Washington gave us one of the finest, first-person Civil War books about slavery, which inspired activists like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Born a slave in Virginia in 1856, Washington tells of his childhood in bondage and struggle for education. Attention is given to the Reconstruction’s influence on his creation of the Tuskegee Institute and tireless efforts to advance Black intellectuals.
#20 – Civil War Volumes 1-3 Box Set
In Shelby Foote’s highly-prized Civil War volumes, Northern and Southern characters of the conflict come alive. This massive labor of love is expertly researched for historical narratives in three sections: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian, and Red River to Appomattox. Called the “American Iliad,” Foote’s epic spans nearly 3,000 pages to relay intensive details on the war’s battles, localities, and powerful personalities.
#21 – Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend
Published in 1997, historian James Robertson’s Civil War biography draws on untapped manuscript sources to express the tale of a Southern Hero. Beginning with his service in the Valley Campaign of 1862, Robertson details how Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson became a central figure for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Later chapters also cover the detrimental impact on Confederate forces after Jackson’s fatal wounds at Chancellorsville.
#22 – The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
Leonard L. Richards
Historian Leonard L. Richards penned this 304-page book to illuminate the happenings and politics of mid-19th century America. It begins with the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Southern slave states saw the California Gold Rush as a means to advance their Congressional power. Yet California entered the Union free, leading to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Civil War.
#23 – Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War
Harry S. Stout
Upon the Altar of the Nation is a unique Civil War book that examines the Union and Confederate soldiers’ shared belief that God sided with them. Yale University professor Harry S. Stout delves into the spiritual underpinnings that seemingly “justified” the war. With sermons and diary accounts, Stout argues that two conflicting faiths stood face-to-face at Gettysburg.
#24 – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Ronald C. White
Chosen as Amazon’s “Best Book of October 2016,” American Ulysses is an 826-page endeavor to examine the life of the Civil War General turned 18th President of the United States. Biographer Ronald C. White depicts Grant as a willing delegator, introspective leader, and valiant civil rights defender against the Ku Klux Klan. Chapters progress through Grant’s second presidential term in America’s postbellum period.
#25 – Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott
Robert Garth Scott
Fallen Leaves includes a collection of the Abbott family’s wartime letters that share the story of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, a member of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. With over 30 photographs, the brief biography shows his participation in battles like Ball’s Bluff with the Army of the Potomac. Mortally wounded on May 6, 1864, Abbott was posthumously praised by President Lincoln.
#26 – Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days that Changed a Presidency, March 24 – April 8, 1865
Historian Noah Trudeau, winner of the Jerry Coffey Memorial Book Prize, wrote Lincoln’s Greatest Journey to share a momentous moment in the war-weary President’s term. In late March 1865, Lincoln made an unprecedented trip to City Point, Virginia, with the Army of the Potomac. Sixteen days later, Lincoln returns to Washington with a renewed sense of purpose to unite America.
#27 – Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground
Glenn W. LaFantasie
Fought on July 1-3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was the Civil War’s deadliest campaign in which an estimated 46,000 casualties occurred in three days. Glenn W. LaFantasie published this book at Indiana University in 2008 to illuminate the heroes of this pivotal battle. Biographies of key figures like George G. Meade, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and William C. Oates capture the human drama of wartime.
#28 – The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War
John J. Dwyer
Featuring two dozen pieces from artist John Paul Strain, The War Between the States is a 700-page volume offering a magisterial account of the Civil War’s great tragedies. Author John J. Dwyer crafts fast-paced drama with chapters on slavery, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Sherman’s Last Stand, martial law in Maryland, and more. Dwyer then discusses the Reconstruction, including post-War government corruption.
#29 – The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Published by Mark Twain after Grant’s death of throat cancer in 1885, The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is a two-volume autobiography written by the 18th President of the United States. Once called an “incompetent drunk” by President Lincoln, Grant evolved into a military hero of the Civil War. In straightforward prose, Grant delivers his moral, social, and political argument for battling against the South.
#30 – Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography
William E. Gienapp
In 2002, historian William E. Gienapp etched this 256-page biography to remarkably retell the vibrant story of America’s most revered figure. Born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, in 1809, Abraham Lincoln transformed from backwoodsman to Illinois lawyer and Whig Party leader. An outspoken opponent to slavery, Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Gienapp depicts how Lincoln’s victory prompted Southern secession and the Civil War.
#31 – Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
David W. Blight
Race and Reunion examines the deep, traumatic imprint that the Civil War left on America long after reconciliation. Author David W. Blight argues that the triumph of Union victory downplayed the sectionalism that initiated conflict. Blight’s realist narrative displays how the reunion of white America was built without justice through the increasing segregation of Blacks and eventually the Jim Crow laws.
#32 – Understanding the War Between the States
Howard Ray White
Split into 40 concise chapters, Understanding the War Between the States is an 88-page booklet depicting the Southern counter-views to U.S. history. Chronicling from the Colonial Era to the Revolution and Westward Movement, the roots of the Civil War’s political sectionalism are explored. Howard Ray White then argues that Lincoln launches a war of subjugation to create an all-powerful federal government that nixes state rights.
#33 – The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle
Margaret S. Creighton
Unlike most Civil War books focused on U.S.-born white men, Bates College professor Margaret S. Creighton crafts The Colors of Courage to diversify the pivotal battle. She shares the unique views of three unsung minorities: women, Blacks, and German immigrants. Creighton reveals how wide the 1863 conflict’s dimensions were beyond the battlefield in south-central Pennsylvania.
#34 – Slavery Was Not the Cause of the War Between the States: The Irrefutable Argument
Gene Kizer, Jr.
Author Gene Kizer, Jr., a College of Charleston professor, published this book in 2014 to refute the claim that the North went to war to end slavery. He argues that President Lincoln actually declared war on the South because they faced economic obliteration after the wealthy, cotton-producing states seceded. Included is Charles W. Ramsdell’s famous treatise, “Lincoln and Fort Sumter.”
#35 – Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life
John D. Billings
Hardtrack and Coffee is a 208-page, tell-all memoir created by John D. Billings, a veteran of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery Battery. Published in 1888, the book offers first-hand glimpses into Union soldiers’ lives in camp and on the march. It’s an excellent read for learning about day-to-day Civil War life, including their diet, living quarters, medical care, and recreation.
#36 – Twilight at Little Round Top: July 2, 1863–The Tide Turns at Gettysburg
Glenn W. LaFantasie
Another of Glenn W. LaFantasie’s best-selling Civil War books about Gettysburg focuses on the epic fight to secure Little Round Top in 1863. Drawing on memoirs and diaries, LaFantasie goes beyond the oft-told story of Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain’s exploits. He tells of lesser-known figures like Mark Perry who fought to control the hill’s tactical advantage in Gettysburg.
#37 – Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Willis wrote Lincoln at Gettysburg to show the power of the words used to memorialize a gruesome Civil War battle. Willis notes how Lincoln drew on diverse sources from Thomas Jefferson to Pericles for writing the Gettysburg Address, arguably U.S. history’s greatest speech. With a mere 272 words, Lincoln proclaims the principle of human equality and struggle for “a new birth of freedom.”
#38 – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Civil War biographies about Abraham Lincoln are a dime a dozen, but Lincoln Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin charters unfamiliar territory in Team of Rivals. This 2006 book explores Lincoln’s relationships with three Cabinet members: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, all of whom were Republican competitors. Goodwin provides evidence that these former rivals became indispensable allies to keep America intact.
#39 – This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Drew Gilpin Faust
The Civil War killed more than 600,000 soldiers, an equivalent of six million in today’s U.S. population. In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust offers penetrating analysis on how the large-scale death forever changed the nation. Through the voices of soldiers, nurses, pastors, and statesmen, Faust creates a moving portrait of people torn by grief and carnage with unprecedented doubts of a benevolent God.
#40 – Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
James M. McPherson
No list of great books on the Civil War would be complete without James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Battle Cry of Freedom. Written in 1988, the 904-page volume spans two action-packed decades from the Mexican-American War through the surrender at Appomattox. McPherson analyzes the social, military, and political events of the divided, violent period while arguing both sides’ differing interpretations of “freedom.”
#41 – The American Civil War: A Military History
John Keegan, the defense editor of The Daily Telegraph, debuted this 396-page military history epic to provide perceptive insights into America’s most wrenching war. The psychology, economics, and political ideologies of the Civil War are explained in detail. With 12 maps, Keegan explores how the nation’s geography presented a uniquely challenging battlefield. Broader knowledge on armed conflict is available in Keegan’s A History of Warfare too.
#42 – Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War
Charles Bracelen Flood
Before the attack on Fort Sumter, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were pre-war failures. Yet 10 months later, at the Battle of Shiloh, each matured through a unique collaboration. Historian Charles Bracelen Flood runs through the similar philosophies and battle strategies that turned Grant and Sherman’s abiding bond into a partnership that made the Union’s victory achievable.
#43 – Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War
Confederates in the Attic is humorous, thought-provoking read published in 1999 by Tony Horwitz, a war correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Upon returning to U.S. soil, he encounters an obsessed group of Virginians who re-enact Civil War battles. Horwitz sets out on a marathon trek from Antietam to Appomattox in search of the ghosts of the Lost Cause.
#44 – Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas
John G. Barrett
In January 1865, German William Tecumseh Sherman raced northward with 60,000 veteran soldiers to boldly wage war through the Carolinas. Using first-person memoirs, John G. Barrett traces Sherman’s onslaught from the burning of Columbia to Joe Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place. Though the campaign is deemed Sherman’s greatest feat, Barrett shows the devastating effects of his pillaging on Southern civilian life.
#45 – Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction
James McPherson and James Hogue
Two award-winning history professors, James McPherson and James Hogue, paired up to create Ordeal By Fire, an up-to-date textbook about the Civil War. Published by McGraw-Hill, the 816-page volume covers the various sociological, political, and economical reasons the war began, including the biggest one – slavery. Hogue specifically lends his expertise on the Reconstruction aftermath in the third section as America rebuilt.
#46 – Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman From the Wilderness to Appomattox
Col. Theodore Lyman
Edited by George R. Agassiz, Meade’s Headquarters is a collection of letters written by Colonel Theodore Lyman, one of the Major General’s aides, to his wife Mimi. Featuring 224 battle plans, the first-hand narrative provides insightful Civil War knowledge from inside the Army of the Potomac. Starting just after Gettysburg, Lyman shares interactions with Grant, Meade, Butler, and others.
#47 – Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation
William C. Davis
Three-time Jefferson Davis Prize winner William C. Davis presented Lincoln’s Men in 1999 to explore the relationship between President Lincoln and his Union soldiers. Compiled from thousands of unpublished letters, the engaging, 336-page book gives voices to the Union volunteers. From the inferno of Shiloh to the siege of Petersburg, Davis casts light on how “Father Abraham” inspired his soldiers’ faith.
#48 – Divided We Fought : A Pictorial History of the War 1861-1865
Hirst Milhollen, Milton Kaplan, and Hulen Stuart
First published in 1952 by The MacMillan Company, Divided We Fought is one of the few pictorial books on the Civil War with predominantly photographs and sketches. Three veteran editors collaborated to artfully arrange pictures that depict the broad scope of the Civil War’s impact on American life. Simple-to-read captions accompany the pictures for a stunning learning experience.
#49 – The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank
Bell Irvin Wiley
Belonging to the Essential Classics of the Civil War series, this 898-page tome was written by Bell Irvin Wiley to portray the live of Union and Confederate soldiers on the frontlines. Chapters are packed with personal letters to tell the emotional impact of warfare. Readers also gain insights into how soldiers viewed Lincoln, the cons of emancipation, Southern reasons for fighting, and more.
#50 – Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America
Jane E. Schultz
Even though most Civil War books are male-centric, it’s believed that 20,000 women worked in Union and Confederate hospitals. Historian Jane E. Schultz shares the frequently untold stories of female relief workers who greatly impacted the war effort. She also recognizes the legacy of these women, including Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, and Sojourner Truth, in post-war professionalism.
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed history buff, an inquiring student, or simply an avid fan of period dramas like PBS’ Mercy Street, these 50 books about the Civil War will answer your burning questions about the battles that left the bloodiest stain on America’s past.