The Civil War Books That Should Have Been Assigned Reading In School

by Charlotte Ahlin

It's 2017, and General Robert E. Lee is still starting fights. The violent demonstration of white supremacists in Charlottesville centered around protecting a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Confederate flags were everywhere. A woman was murdered in the name of white nationalism. The American Civil War is not the stuff of musty old history books, it is still claiming lives in America today. Here are the books about the Civil War that we should have read in school, because we are already repeating one of the darkest chapters in our nation's history.

When I was in fifth grade, we skipped the Civil War entirely. We covered the Revolutionary War and the founding fathers (I dressed up as Eliza Hamilton for a presentation way before Hamilton was cool), but I guess we ran out of time at the end of the year, and the American Civil War was deemed skippable. Even when schools do cover the war, they often teach it as the "War of Northern Aggression," or claim that it was about states' right and not about slavery (spoiler alert: it was about slavery). The Civil War is certainly not a simple story of the North as "good" white people and the South as "bad" white people, either, especially since the war was not fought by white soldiers alone. And given that many Americans don't even know who won the Civil War, I think it's safe to say that we can do a better job of teaching it in American schools.

Learning about the Civil War will not magically halt white supremacists in their tracks. But it will help us all to understand the long history of systematic racism and violence in our country, and what steps we must take to break the cycle:

'Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War' by Tony Horwitz

The idea of an "Unfinished Civil War" is feeling awfully relevant right now. Tony Horwitz's bestselling Confederates in the Attic delves into just how modern-day Americans view the Civil War, particularly in the South. How can so many Americans idealize the Confederacy while so many others condemn it? This book might have been published in 1998, but the descriptions of the modern South's nostalgia for the "Lost Cause" of the Civil War could just as easily be written today.

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'Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory' by David W. Blight

Unsurprisingly, the Civil War didn't end with freedom and hugs all around. Race and Reunion is a study of the war and what came right after: how American culture immediately began to pivot from abolitionist rhetoric to reconciliation rhetoric. Suddenly, it was all about making the former Confederates feel better, stressing that there was violence on "both sides," and downplaying the issue of race entirely. White America wanted everyone to "get over" the atrocity of slavery and go back to being friends as soon as possible...and we're still living with the ramifications of that cultural shift.

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'Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War' edited by Ira Berlin

Any historian will tell you that primary sources are the best way we can learn from history. Free at Last collects a number of letters, journals, and testimonies detailing the brutality of the war from the front lines. There were white and black soldiers on both sides of the conflict, there were civilian women struggling to keep their families afloat while the men were off at war, and there were many, many impassioned arguments for and against slavery. Free at Last is a gut-wrenching but necessary first-hand account of the Civil War and Emancipation that every American should read.

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'The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery' by Eric Foner

You can't talk about the Civil War without talking about Lincoln. The Fiery Trial is a Pulitzer-prize winning account of Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator." Lincoln is often credited with ending slavery but, as with all historical figures, Lincoln was not some morally perfect angel. He was a fallible human being (although I would happily take the re-animated corpse of Abraham Lincoln over our current president). The Fiery Trial looks at the end of American slavery, the myths surrounding it, and Lincoln's evolving morality as both a man and commander in chief.

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'Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War' by Fred Kaplan

If you're looking for a less forgiving portrait of Lincoln, then pick up Lincoln and the Abolitionists. This book is not here to worship Lincoln's memory as emancipator. Instead, Kaplan discusses the deeply ingrained racism of white abolitionists during and after the war, Lincoln's relationship with Frederick Douglass, and the progressive precedent of John Quincy Adams. Even the "good" white people during the Civil War were, on the whole...not that great.

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'This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War' by Drew Gilpin Faust

The Civil War was incredibly bloody. Over 600,000 soldiers died in the conflict. Adjusted for our current population, that would be six million dead. Historian Catherine Drew Gilpin Faust focuses on how this death toll changed the nature of America, both culturally and physically. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the devastating impact of a full scale war on American soil.

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'The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War's Defining Battle' by Margaret S. Creighton

Gettysburg is the best known battle of the Civil War, but studies of Gettysburg are frequently incomplete. Margaret S. Creighton explores the women, immigrants, and African Americans who fought, witnessed, and died at Gettysburg in this fascinating account. No matter how much white supremacists may scream about it, America has never been solely a nation of white men, as Creighton's book can attest.

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'The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves' by Andrew Ward

Many, many books on the Civil War look at the conflict through the eyes of generals, or even of President Lincoln. Andrew Ward weaves together firsthand accounts from the enslaved people whose futures were at stake. Here you'll find accounts of battles, but also of the messy aftermath as the South continued to resist emancipation even after it became law.

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'Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction' by Jim Downs

Even when books discuss the aftermath of the Civil War, they rarely focus on the enormous public health crisis that faced African Americans. The war led to the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century, and (surprise!) it turns out that the American health care system has always had issues with serving the people who need it the most.

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'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl' by Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl may not be directly about the Civil War, but Harriet Jacobs' memoir is our most in-depth look at slavery in America directly leading up to the war itself. Jacobs' debunks any myths about enslaved people being treated "well," chronicling the years of horrific abuse she suffered while living in slavery. Even after making her escape, Jacobs was forced to hide for seven years in a coffin-like room off of her grandmother's porch, for fear of being captured and returned. Abolitionist literature like Jacobs' account gets directly to the heart of the moral divide during the Civil War, and it's impossible to read this book and still insist that the war had nothing to do with the horrors of slavery.

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