The American Civil War is a fascinating time in the history of a federal democratic republic. For five years, two regions of the country duked it out from the hills of Virginia, to the coasts of the Gulf, to the rivers of the west, to the piedmonts of the South. It was a brutal military, economic, political, philosophical, and human (humanitarian?) conflict for the soul of the Republic. To many Americans, the Civil War represents a much darker and more grim time than the Revolutionary War and I complete understand that perspective. In many ways, the American Revolution was a time of new hope as we experimented with a new approach to governance and self-rule, while the Civil War, even though it freed millions upon millions of American from slavery, was a time of reckoning as a country’s sins were finally due payment in blood.
I’ve done a lot of personal reading on the American Civil War. What is my fascination with this time period? I am not sure, and this blog post isn’t an attempt at figuring that out. However, I would like to highlight the 5 best American Civil War books I’ve read, according to my opinion. You may have a different list. You Uncle Larry may also have a different list; however, this is my list, and I hope it may serve as a reference to you if you are ever in need of one.
#5. Grant by Ron Chernow
I won’t lie to you, this is a very long and very “dull” book. What do I mean by dull? Well, Ron Chernow is a great historian and makes a very excellent defense of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Union, including an alternative analysis of his “drinking problem.” However, the writing isn’t great. It is up to par. Unlike Chernow’s previous work, Alexander Hamilton, this book often sacrifices style for analysis, which makes it a great tool for personal education, but often difficult to get through some chapters. This book is also very, very long. To be honest, I feel like this book deserves to be here in part because of how many hours I put into it.
#4. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson
This is probably the best, most comprehensive, and best-written single-tome book you can read on the American Civil War. If you know nothing or very little about the Civil War, then this is the book to launch your journey. McPherson tries to do a lot in this book as he approaches the war from all angles: political, military, socioeconomic, and philosophically; however, he also goes back into the 1840s and 1850s and lays out a solid historical foundation for talking about the Civil War itself. After all, the Civil War has its roots in 1776, but more directly on the Mexican-American War, The Comprise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the election of 1860. This is a must-read for all amateur historians, enthusiasts, and military history junkies. Pick it up. Do it.
#3. April 1865:The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik
Few history books have kept me on the edge of my seat such as this one. If you have a general understanding of U.S. history, the ending of the Civil War is no surprise to you. The Union won. Lincoln was shot. However, Jay Winik masterfully envelops the reader is a detailed yet almost-spiritual narrative of the last month of the War. While reading this book, my mind would at times wander and ask “what is gonna happen next?” and that should tell you how well-written this book has been and on the level of craft that went into each part of it. This isn’t a book for someone who doesn’t have at least a general understanding of what happened throughout the war. Winik’s main weakness, if it’s a weakness at all, is that he wrote a specialized narrative, assuming the reader has done his homework on the rest of the conflict. This one is a keeper and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
#2. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This could have been my #1 book on this list, and it may honestly come down to how well I slept last night. For those of you who have spent serious time analyzing the Civil War, its origins, arcs, and conclusion, then you know that Lincoln is quite the complex historical and political figure. You don’t have to love Lincoln to admire that he was an incredible individual and leader.
This book is the ultimate masterpiece when it comes to Lincoln the person, the leader, the President, the conqueror, the hero, the villain, the angel, the demon, the deity, the sinner. Even though the book falls short of a full biographical undertaking, Team of Rivals does for the Lincoln approach to leading in a time of national crisis what few other books have done for any other leader, in any time period. The book’s one weakness, which once again isn’t a weakness, is that it is almost one thousand pages long. However, you will never ever regret reading this book.
One last point on Team of Rivals: if I had the power to design the school curriculum of every school in the U.S., I would institute Team of Rivals as mandatory reading for every American. Why isn’t this book #1? Well, because it has a limited focus on the full spectrum of the Civil War, even though I may completely contradict myself with my #1 pick.
#1. The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan
Yes, I picked as my #1 choice a book that primarily addresses the military angle of a military conflict; however, I am making this choice acknowledging that the Civil War wasn’t just a military conflict with armies and battles—it impacted every single dimension of American life for many years, beyond the battles and the generals. That being said, there is something extremely sobering about a non-American taking a crack at narrating and analyzing your history. This book is infamous English historian John Keegan’s masterful undertaking of examining our Civil War, and I must conclude that is a powerful piece of literature, while also being the very last book he wrote and published before his death in 2012.
Ask any military leader or historian, and they have probably read something by John Keegan: The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, The Price of Admiralty, A History of Warfare, Intelligence in War, etc. This may be a bold statement to make, but it is my opinion that in this his final work, John Keegan brought together most of the great books he wrote into one long but captivating depiction of the Civil War from its primary and most important angle, the men and the battles that shaped the fate of the country. And, once more, I must highlight how refreshing and sobering it is to have one’s history analyzed by someone who isn’t American, by someone who can point here and there and, hopefully, craft new perspectives and arguments on old debates.
I read this book in 2017, so last year, and I am waiting for the opportunity to read it again.
Well, that’s that! I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Once again, I haven’t read every book on the Civil War and I am sure I have yet to read some awesome classics; however, this is my list based on what I’ve experienced. Please let me know what your thoughts are on these books and if you have any you would like to recommend.