I’ve always held a measure of fascination over the Civil War, and now that we’re facing some 150 year anniversaries of the war (as well as the fact that certain Civil War heroes are going to be gracing our currency), the fires of interest have been stoked once more. One great way to satiate cravings for this era of American history to read books about the Civil War.
Between the fabulousness of Gone with the Wind and the beautifully written love letters of the Civil War era, it’s easy to romanticize it all. But it was far from romantic. There were the horrors of slavery, the impact of a horrific death toll, and the terror and uncertainty of a people whose country was torn apart by its seams. Amidst the darkness, however, there were stories of bravery and love and inspiration, including stories of female soldiers masquerading as men in order to fight and tales of men and women fighting on behalf of those they love. If you're at all interested in learning more about this period of American history, I’ve compiled a list of 10 nonfiction books about the Civil War. These historical texts are anything but dry, and if you love a good piece of history, you’ll love these stories.
1. This Hallowed Ground the Story of the Union Side of the Civil War by Bruce Catton
Written with a moving sort of lyricism, This Hallowed Ground focuses entirely on the Union side of the Civil War, from the months of unrest that led to the attack at Fort Sumter all the way to the day the Confederacy surrendered. The tone of the book is that of a journalistic narrative, notable for the fact that it feels as though you are reading historical analysis from someone who experienced the war firsthand.
2. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
The Civil War took the lives of approximately 620,000 soldiers, which, if adjusted for population inflation, would translate to 6 million today. This Republic of Suffering studies the financial, social, intellectual, and spiritual impact that such an enormous death toll would have on the country. While the topic is a bit macabre, it's definitely a unique angle that isn't often explored. Faust guides us through the logistical challenges of such death tolls, detailing the first widespread use of embalming, the rise of undertaking as a profession, and the development of a federal system of national cemeteries for the Union dead, as well as development of private cemeteries for the Confederacy. The loss of civilian lives isn't glossed over either, and the book details the conflicts that arose due to the abolishment of slavery. If you believe that you've read almost everything about the Civil War already, pick up this book... you haven't even come close.
3. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Abraham Lincoln is widely praised as one of the greatest presidents in American history. Although the story of his life and death has graced the pages of many a book, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin believes there's still more to be said. In Team of Rivals, Goodwin studies Lincoln's political genius through the relationships of three men that he selected for his cabinet: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, all of whom opposed him in his running for president in 1860. While all three of these gentleman originally disliked Lincoln, they were all convinced to join his administration. They all grew to deeply respect the man. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, this book is a little more political in nature, but it is definitely well worth the read for any history buff.
4. A Diary from Dixie by Mary Boykin Chesnut
While most books about the Civil War are historical retrospectives written by historians many years after the fact, A Diary from Dixie was actually written during the course of the war. Mary Boykin Chesnut was a society matron and wife of Confederate General James Chesnut Jr., a senator and aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davies. Since she was such an active participant in her husband's career — even accompanying him on postings in Charleston, Richmond, and Columbia — Chesnut had a front row seat to many of the goings on in the war, and she swiftly produced what is considered to be one of the most important books about the Civil War.
5. Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg by James A. Hessler
General Dan Sickles was definitely a controversial figure. This disgraced former congressman publicly murdered his wife's lover on the streets of Washington D.C., and he was the first person to use the newly-minted temporary insanity defense to escape justice. With his career in shambles, he used his connections with Abraham Lincoln to obtain command in the Union army despite his lack of military experience. At the infamous Battle of Gettysburg, Sickle disobeyed direct orders and marched on the peach orchard, an action that dictated the rest of the battle's strategy for both sides. A fascinating figure, this biography is almost too crazy to believe.
6. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook
For three years, "Albert Cashier" fought bravely in the Union army, and was believed to be a man until 1911, when this aged veteran revealed that she was actually a woman named Jennie Hodgers. Another woman, Frances Clayton, kept fighting long after her husband was felled in battle, and this isn't counting all of the soldiers who surprised their fellow comrades by giving birth in camp. They Fought Like Demons compiles loads of stories about the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men to fight. Talk about fighting the patriarchy!
7. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: the True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy by Elizabeth R. Varon
Elizabeth Van Lew is one of the most fascinating female figures in American history. This book centers around a woman who, according to historians, created "the most productive espionage operation of the Civil War." A Union sympathizer living in Richmond, Virginia, she ran a spy ring during the Civil War that not only shared intelligence to hamper the efforts of the Confederacy, but helped hundreds of Union soldiers sneak back into the North. This biography studies her struggles as a Southern woman who took positions that were controversial for her time, including her early efforts to free her family's slaves.
8. Civil War Love Stories by Gill Paul
The Civil War pitted families against each other, tore friendships apart, and left 200,000 women widowed by the end of it. Civil War Love Stories centers on 14 couples who faced those odds. Such examples of these couples include David Demus, who joined fighting after the forming of the first African American regiment and would write tales of battles to his beloved wife, Mary. Another is the story of the famous military tactician Stonewall Jack, who simply wanted to win the war so that he could return to his beloved wife and baby daughter. These heartbreaking love stories are going to stay with you for a long time.
9. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
Another single volume history of the Civil War, this volume captures the drama that occurred on both sides of the war, including such milestones as the Dred-Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. McPherson also brings his own ideas about several points in the war, including the origins of the Republican Party, the causes of secession, and the anti-war opposition in the North.
10. Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears
Ask a person to name a battle from the Civil War, and more often than not they're going to name Gettysburg. Using source material like soldier's letters and official military war records, this single volume book closely studies the most important battle in the Civil War, if not the most important battle in American history.