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The Books Of The Civil War

One bookseller's list of must-read tomes for a better understanding of the War Between The States

Editor's note: April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. East Atlanta Patch asked Jeff McCord, owner of in East Atlanta Village, to compile his list of must-read books for folks seeking a better understanding of the Civil War.

by Jeff McCord

Asking for a top ten list of best books to read on the Civil War is like asking someone to pick up the prettiest shells on the beach. Where does one start?  I’ve taken the liberty of including both fiction and non-fiction.  And this is technically more than 10, but I’m counting trilogies as one.  Also, I’m exercising a little bias toward titles with more local flavor.

This should not be portrayed as a definitive list, but rather a broad, representative list both for people who want an overview and also people who are willing to dig in a little deeper.  So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • One of the highlights of the last major milestone commemoration of the Civil War – the centennial – was the publication of Bruce Catton’s Civil War Centennial Trilogy: "The Coming Fury," "Terrible Swift Sword" and "Never Call Retreat." More than just a narrative of battles and dates, the Pulitzer-prize winning Catton incorporates social, economic, and political topics as well.  If you’re not up for the trilogy, you can delve into Catton’s infinitely readable, one-volume "The Civil War," which includes a new introduction by historian James M. McPherson.
  • "War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta," by Russell Bonds. This comprehensive and extremely readable narrative of the is one of the best, clearest and most understandable histories ever written on the topic. 
  • "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Civil War," (3rd Edition) by Alan Axelrod. Completely revised for the Sesquicentennial and just recently re-released, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Civil War" is a quick and comprehensive overview of America's bloodiest war. Incorporating the latest scholarship, the book features a clear chronology of major events, detailed explanations of key battles, and offers fascinating stories of the men and women who fought bravely and often died for a cause they believed. This is a great starting point for Civil War novices and a worthy resource for buffs as well.
  • "Army Life in a Black Regiment: And Other Writings," by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson was a Unitarian minister, a literary man and an active Abolitionist. From November 1862 to October 1864, he was the white colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first authorized black regiment recruited from former slaves for Union service. Covering one of the major political and social developments of the war, this is a familiar story to those who have seen the movie "Glory," chronicling the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was formed afterwards and drew from free Northern blacks.
  • "The Civil War: A Narrative," by Shelby Foote. This is a comprehensive history in three volumes ("Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville;" "Vol 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian," and "Vol 3: Red River to Appomattox.") Stretching to 3,000 pages, it is not for the casual Civil War reader, but it is an excellent resource by an author who gained fame for his soft Southern drawl and keen historical insights on Ken Burns's 1990 PBS documentary "The Civil War."
  • "Andersonville," by MacKinley Kantor. This Pulitzer-prize winning novel brings to life the tragic and shocking story of the infamous Confederate POW prison in South Georgia. There are many books written about Andersonville, but this novelization remains one of the best reads available.
  • "A Distant Flame," by Phillip Lee Williams. This is the fictional account of a young Confederate sharpshooter, Charlie Merrill, facing the battles ahead at the gates of Atlanta in the summer of 1864. Beautifully written as the memoirs of an elderly Charlie on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, the story reveals Charlie’s journey from the Civil War’s fields of fire to the redemption of old age.
  • "The Red Badge of Courage," by Stephen Crane. A quick read and a classic that should be included on every Civil War reading list.
  • "Chickamauga and Other Civil War Stories," edited by Shelby Foote (1993). This anthology of Civil War stories was long out-of-print, but was re-edited by Shelby Foote in 1993 and provides both a history of the Civil War era and an insight into the popular culture as revealed in the works of America’s most notable writers, including such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, and Mark Twain.
  • "The Life of Johnny Reb," by Bell Irvin Wiley. Another classic!  This is Wiley's composite portrait of the rank-and-file Confederate soldier, first published in 1943 to enthusiastic acclaim. The book still offers one of the best available accounts of the ordinary citizens who made up the Confederate army, providing an intimate history of a soldier's daily life - the songs he sang, the foods he ate, the hopes and fears he experienced, the reasons he fought. As a historian, Wiley was renowned as a champion of the common folk, whom he saw as ensnared in the great conflict of the 1860s.
CynthiaB April 17, 2011 at 02:44 PM
You left out "Ordeal by Fire" by James MacPherson. In print since 1982
Tom Clark April 17, 2011 at 04:14 PM
John Keegan's "The American Civil War" is a must read in order to understand why the Confedenracy could never win. His analysis of the military geography and the improvising of both armies is illuminating.
Demain April 18, 2011 at 03:34 AM
Gettysburg: A Lovely Summer Morning by Frank A. Haskell is by far one of the best books on the Battle of Gettysburg I've every read... and it's only 99 cents in the Amazon Kindle store. http://www.amazon.com/Gettysburg-Lovely-Summer-Morning-ebook/dp/B004O0U7RS
Péralte Paul April 18, 2011 at 04:06 PM
Thanks all for the great suggestions.
David Chastain June 27, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Company Aytch is a must read as well

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