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Basic American Civil War Reading List

American Civil War

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Aug 9, 2006, 10:26am Top

The following reading list is an attempt to equip a newcomer with the basic facts about the American Civil War. The list is a starting point which covers only the essential aspects of the war. There are important omissions such as the events leading to the war and the reconstruction afterwards. I have not included personal recollections and biographies.

A good place to start is James M. McPherson's Pulitzer prize winning one volume Battle Cry of Freedom or Shelby Foote's three volumes The Civil War: A Narrative. Bruce Catton's eminent trilogy about the Civil War sparked an older generation's interest in the conflict.

Why the South Lost the Civil War and Why the North Won the Civil War summarize the reasons for the outcome of the war. James M. McPherson's The Negro's Civil War and Fogel and Engerman's classic Time on the Cross treat the peculiar institution.

Mark Boatner's portable Civil War Dictionary is a goldmine of facts and a handy reference. The Century magazine's four volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War was written by the surviving generals themselves, highly partisan and sometimes inaccurate but always engaging.Irvin Bell Wiley's Life of Billy Yank and Life of Johnny Reb present the soldier's point of view from choice selections of diaries and letters. Time Life Books's Echoes of Glory series lavishly illustrates Arms and Equipment of the Union and Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy. Maps can be found in either the mammoth Official Military Atlas of the Civil War or the West Point Atlas for the American Civil War (which you can consult online, unfortunately the print quality is mediocre at best).

Paddy Griffith's Battle Tactics of the Civil War show the continuity and difference to Napoleonic warfare (more voluminous and so detailed that it hurts: Brent Nosworthy's The Bloody Crucible of Courage ). Edward Hagerman's The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare is an abstract presentation of the innovations in logistics, weaponry and communication.

Battles and Campaigns
Bruce Catton's Grant Moves South (1861-1863) and Grant Takes Command (1863-1865), Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants (the unabridge three volume edition) covers the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia 1862-1865. Peter Cozzens's trilogy about the Tennessee battles Stones River, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Edwin B. Coddington's Gettysburg Campaign. Albert Castel's Decision in the West is a recent account of the Atlanta campaign. Glaring omission are the Battle of Bull Run and Sherman's march to the sea.

I still lack a good recommendation for the war at sea. Monitor presents the story of the cheesebox on a raft.

Short stories and novels
Ambrose Bierce's civil war stories and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage are testimony to the horror of war. Sentimental souls read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind or John Jake's North and South trilogy. The battle of Gettysburg is the focus of Michael Shaara's gripping The Killer Angels (beware of his son's works though). The world of civil war buffs is irreverently and funnily presented in Confederates in the Attic.

Movies and documentaries in a later topic. Now, fire away with your suggestions and tips.

Aug 9, 2006, 11:55am Top

As for Civil War naval history there's at least a good one-book history of the Southern effort in the form of A History of the Confederate Navy by Raimondo Luraghi. Sadly, there really doesn't seem to be a Federal equivalent. At least "Lincoln's Navy" by Donald Canney wasn't making it for me when I glanced it over; too much tabular data not enough strategy.

As for operational history, I've been most impressed by Robert M. Browning, Jr. and his books on the Union blockade along the Atlantic. Hopefully Browning will also tackle the activities of the squadrons covering the Gulf coast.

Edited: Aug 9, 2006, 1:32pm Top

I recommend this year's Pulitzer Prize winner March by Geraldine Brooks in the fiction category.

Another category not mentioned is photography. I highly recommend two books by William Frassanito - Antietam and Gettysburg: A Journey in Time.

Aug 10, 2006, 12:34pm Top

Two other good resources for maps are The Oxford Atlas of the Civil War and Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War. Earl B. McElfresh also does superb individual battlefield maps; I have Cedar Mountain Battlefield, Culpeper County, Virginia 1862 and Chancellorsville Battlefield (includes Fredericksburg and Salem Church).

A fine novel that came out last year is E. L. Doctorow's The March: A Novel, presenting the from-below view of Sherman's March.

For an unusual take on the war and the period leading up to it, I highly recommend Jeff Hummel's Emancipating slaves, enslaving free men : a history of the American Civil War; his extreme libertarian approach may not sit well with some, but his annotated bibliographies after each chapter are superb and worth the price of admission all by themselves, and mentally arguing with the author as you read is invigorating.

A brotherhood of valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade, C.S.A., and the Iron Brigade, U.S.A by Jeffry D. Wert is supposed to be very good; I own it but haven't yet read it. Publisher's Weekly says Wert "delivers a first-rate book about the two most renowned infantry commands of the Civil War, which confronted each other at Manassas (Bull Run), Fredericksburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Through skillful use of period letters, diaries and action reports, Wert paints a vivid portrait of the Confederate and Union soldiers who bled together across the killing grounds of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Particularly appealing is the way this volume allows readers soldier's-eye views from both sides of key battles."

Aug 10, 2006, 8:53pm Top

Yes, I second the recommendation of Hummel's book. I would be interested to find out what you guys think of it

Aug 11, 2006, 12:12am Top

jcbrunner: That was an amazing post—exactly the sort of thing I was hoping would happen with touchtones. From now on anyone looking at any of those books will be able to follow a link and find out what you say about it. Bravo!

Aug 18, 2006, 12:16pm Top

Another recommendation for the ante-bellum period is Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese.

I also love The Civil War Day by Day by E. B. Long, for a complete chronology. I notice it's not widely held here, but it's available in paperback from the big river.

Aug 18, 2006, 12:43pm Top

The best study of Antietam is "Landscape Turned Red" by Stephen Sears.

Aug 18, 2006, 2:12pm Top

There is a good study of the American Navy during the Civil War by William Fowler, Under Two Flags. Fowler has written several books of maritime history.

Aug 27, 2006, 8:53pm Top

Not familiar with Fowler; that it looked a little too general for my tastes is all I really recall.

Aug 28, 2006, 4:33am Top

There`s a Folio Society book Fire of Liberty - I think there was a previous non-Folio edition. Also John Brown by W E B Du Bois.

Oct 26, 2006, 1:22pm Top

This is a bit beyond a basic reading list, but I submit for your perusal my collected bibliography of interesting Civil War related books (prelude-reconstruction) here


Edward Ayers is half done with an interesting localist retelling of the war. My review of the first half is on the In the Presence of Mine Enemies page.

Edited: Mar 6, 2007, 4:04pm Top

Speaking of "operational history". . . . A local librarian once showed me a new acquistion --- a book (or books?) on surgery/medical treatment of the wounded during the Civil War, with detailed illustrations. I wish I could remember the title or author. Anyone know it?

14RobertMosher First Message
Mar 10, 2007, 12:22pm Top

There are actually any number of books by surgeons and nurses who served during the Civil War. Many of them can be found using Google Books and downloaded as pdf files (use the fullview option to find the complete books). For maps, there is also The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, regularlly offered in a new edition by Barnes and Noble. These are the maps prepared during and after the war and accompanied the published official histories, collections of general orders, etc that the government published after the war. The collections of General Orders and other reports themselves can be found on CDs often for sale at the National Park Battlefield book stores.

Robert A. Mosher

Edited: Aug 17, 2007, 10:37am Top

I have a strong second for Civil War Dictionary and Atlas of the Civil War. The Dictionary material is one-half biographies and has an extensive coverage of battles big and small. I get a lot of enjoyment by paging through it and it is always useful when reading another book to get details on some particular person or fact. The Atlas is invaluable to me. I need maps. I simply cannot follow written descriptions of movements during battles. The Atlas is very detailed and shows the movement of forces during battles to give a clear picture of how the battle proceeded.
Another book at the top of my reading list is The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. This is an excellent book. Reading his words you get a clear picture of the clarity of Grant's thinking. Contrary to the title you will not find much that is personal in the book. It is the story of his career with very little in the way of personal anecdotes. The book does provide many details of his campaigns and his battle plans. I give this book my highest recommendation for any student of the Civil War.

Edited: Sep 11, 2007, 3:36pm Top

Great listings so far! For newcomers I think
Shades of Blue and Gray is an excellent aid to finding your path into the subject. Hattway includes fiction, poetry and film in his suggestions for further study. Probably cheap as dirt used from Amazon (I see a copy for 60cents). Great little book.

Edited: Jun 16, 2008, 6:43am Top

The Civil War period isn't my usual historical haunt, but I'm reading "Co. Aytch" right now by Sam Watkins (a private in the Confederate army). Great primary source.

Jun 16, 2008, 4:34pm Top

#17: One of my favorites too.

May 8, 2010, 10:31pm Top

One of the most readable works about the War for Southern Independence is 'Storm Over the Land' by none other than the great poet Carl Sandburg. This work is still in print. I saw a few the other day in the discount book area of Barnes and Noble, and it's still one of best for a first introduction to the tragedy.

May 20, 2010, 5:24pm Top

For a good naval book you might want to look at:

Blue and Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat by Spencer C. Tucker.

Edited: Jul 7, 2010, 3:30pm Top

Civil War in the American West is also a must read.

I must point out that Bruce Catton's books Grant moves South and Grant takes Command are a continuation of Lloyd Lewis's Captain Sam Grant. Mr Lewis died before completing the trilogy and his widow asked Mr Catton to write the rest.

Group: American Civil War

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