Our list of the best Civil War books includes both nonfiction and fiction recommendations from a variety of perspectives. We have included books published before the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 that reveal the climate. We’ve also included books published in the immediate aftermath and not-so-immediate aftermath.
This list of recommendations includes first-hand accounts of the war and time period before, scholarly recommendations that analyze some of the reactionary messaging that took place after the war, as well as novels which have free creative license to delve into the psyche and aftershocks of war.
Best Civil War Books
The objective in creating this list of the best Civil War books is to compile nonfiction sources from some of the most reputable Civil War historians. These books will offer a variety of perspectives and entry points into learning about the Civil War.
As well, we have included a handful of fiction books about the Civil War. That is because fiction and perception can be just as revealing as fact and truth. Many of the books on this list, both nonfiction and fiction, are winners of the Pulitzer Prize.
We have divided our list of recommendations into nonfiction and fiction in order to keep those two genres separate. We’ve included the nonfiction books first to ensure that you have a solid understanding of the Civil War. This will help enhance your enjoyment of the novels. Different perspectives have actively been chosen in order to feature as many aspects of the war as possible.
1. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
Our list of the best Civil War books begins with a fundamental classic. That is, of course, the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant. The 18th President of the United States recounts his military career during the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War.
Grant was the Commanding General of the United States Army from 1864 to 1869. He worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War to lead the Union Army to victory. Then, as president, he implemented Congressional Reconstruction and was often at odds with Andrew Johnson.
Nevertheless, he served two terms as president in the aftermath of the Civil War. His efforts to eliminate the remnants of Confederate nationalism and slavery, protect the citizenship of African Americans, support the expansion during the Gilded Age, and his lived experience during the war make this a fascinating recount.
2. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Even though the events in this book take place from 1841 to 1853, this is another fundamental Civil War book. That is because it reveals the climate that was dominant in the years leading up to the Civil War. It is another autobiography, but from a much different perspective of horrific events.
Solomon Northup was a citizen of New York when he was kidnapped in Washington City in 1841. He was sold into slavery and kept in bondage for 12 years at a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.
Following his rescue in 1853, Northup wrote this account which documents the slave markets in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. It is also a vivid recount of the cotton and sugar cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.
3. Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois
Another one of the best Civil War books is highly praised as presenting a narrative which would come to prevail in academia towards the end of the 20th century. But at the time of publication, it was not the dominant perspective and was heavily criticized. W.E.B. Du Bois was a leading public intellectual, sociologist, and activist who helped found NAACP.
This book tells the story of the twenty years of Reconstruction through the lens of newly liberated African Americans. Du Bois does not shy away from challenging the narrative that had been framed by giving an honest analysis of the harmful effects of democracy, including Jim Crow laws and other injustices.
4. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
This is the first book on our list of the best Civil War books that was published with more than a century of hindsight and reflection from the end of the war. Gilpin Faust examines the impact that death left behind in the wake of the Civil War.
During the war, approximately 620,000 people died through military activity while the civilian loss is impossible to track. The death toll equaled 2.5 per cent of the total population at the time. This means that in a period of strife and opposition, death and grief were universally felt.
Gilpin Faust analyzes the impact of such a death toll through material, political, intellectual, and spiritual angles. The effects of widespread death changed the nation as a whole. It also changed its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
5. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
Drew Gilpin Faust is one of two authors to appear twice on our list of the best Civil War books. But for very good reason. She is a dominant voice of expertise within the field of Civil War study and the 28th president of Harvard University.
This book examines the role that women in the south played during the Civil War after the Confederate soldiers had marched off to war. There were more than half a million women belonging to families with enslaved people. Gilpin Faust analyzes this period of crisis from their perspective.
6. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar
Our next best Civil War book once more offers a different perspective of wartime. This book looks at how the Federal government underestimated the demands of war. By necessity, they began to recruit Black soldiers to fill their ranks. As part of the United States Colored Troops, 180,000 free men and former slaves fought on the battlefield.
It was a revolutionary policy. However, the heroic sacrifice of the 37,000 who gave their lives was quickly forgotten in the aftermath of war. Glatthaar examines the relationship between these troops and the 7,000 white officers during the war, as well as the prejudice that would dominate the armed forces and persist for another century.
7. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom by William and Ellen Craft
This is another autobiography that provides insight into the climate prior to the Civil War, which is revealing in any analysis of war. These memoirs were first published in 1860 and recount how William and Ellen Craft escaped from slavery in Georgia in 1848.
They disguised themselves as a servant and a white male painter and travelled north by railroad and river before arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. Their journey became incredibly well-known at the time through press coverage. This ultimately put their lives in danger. However, their memoirs give great insight into the life and plight of slaves during this period.
8. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
No list of the best Civil War books would be complete without this addition as it has become one of the most highly respected accounts of the American Civil War. It analyzes the political, social, and military events across two decades with the beginning heralded by war in Mexico and the ending ushering to a close at Appomattox.
McPherson includes both drama and insight as he recounts the events leading up to the war and then the war itself. A highly respected historian of this era, he also provides an analysis that was new at the time concerning the slavery expansion in the 1850s, internal dissent, and the reasons for the Union’s victory.
9. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight
This is another 21st century publication that analyzes the traumatic impact of the Civil War. Blight explores both the remembering and forgetting of the war, and the tragic cost of both to race relations and the national reunion.
In the aftermath of the war, amidst a torn America, a period of reconciliation took place that glossed over the division of the two sides. With that element being downplayed, the role slavery played in the war, the participation of African Americans, and the promise of emancipation was nearly lost.
Blight examines how the unity of white America was achieved through the increasing segregation of Black and white memory of the Civil War. He resurrects the African American voices that were stifled in an attempt to preserve the emancipationist legacy in the midst of a culture built on its denial.
10. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
This is one of the most recent publications on our list of the best Civil War books with a publication year of 2010. Foner’s analysis of Lincoln’s transition and evolution of thought regarding slavery and emancipation won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize.
Foner follows Lincoln’s upbringing in Indiana and Illinois to his career amidst increasingly tense political terrain. Lincoln’s opinion of slavery evolved amidst a dynamic and shifting political landscape. Then, finally, he embraced the fundamental and astounding result of the Civil War which was the immediate and uncompensated abolition of slavery and the recognition of freed slaves as American citizens.
11. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Next is the most recent book with its publication in 2018. It is a biography of Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland as a young man. He had been taught how to read by his slave owner mistress and Douglass would become one of the major literary figures of his time.
Douglass used his own story and lived experience of the brutality to condemn slavery. He was a fierce critic of the United States as well as being a radical patriot. Blight is the second author who appears twice on our list of the best Civil War books. But again for good reason by presenting a different perspective and in being a respected historian within this field.
In this book, Blight is able to leverage new information that had been held in a private collection as well as utilizing recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers.
12. A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy by Bruce Catton
Our final recommendation for a nonfiction book about the Civil War recounts the final year of the war. It is the third volume of a trilogy in which each book tackles a particular period of the Civil War. A Stillness at Appomattox won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for excellence in nonfiction.
Catton recounts the battles of the Wilderness, the Bloody Angle, cold Harbot, and the Crater. He then moves through the horrible final months of war to one critical moment at Appomattox. With his vivid descriptions, he brings Grant, Meade, Sheridan, and Lee to life through their failings and triumphs.
1. A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara
This is the first book in a trilogy by Jeff Shaara. The first book begins in the spring of 1862 in the lead up to the Battle of Shiloh, one of the war’s bloodiest and most iconic engagements.
The Confederate Army is teetering on the brink of collapse in the west, which forces Albert Sidney Johnston to abandon Nashville and focus on the defense of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Ulysses Grant and Don Carlos Buell are hot on his tail, but Johnston is aware of the Union plans and is ready to launch an attack on Grant’s encampment in southwestern Tennessee.
Shaara dramatizes the actions and decisions of key leaders during the Civil War through meticulous research and a masterful handle of storytelling.
2. A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan
Our next recommendation for the best fiction Civil War books takes place just after the war in a small Wisconsin town. The community has been gripped by a mysterious and deadly epidemic, while one man tries desperately to save the town and people he loves.
Jacob Hansen is torn between loyalty to his family, his faith in God, and his terror of this vicious disease. Amidst the chaos and violence he is struggling to maintain his sanity.
3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
This book has rightfully received criticism for its romantic and sympathetic portrayal of the south, the Confederate cause, and defense of slavery. However, it has become a mainstay within Civil War literature and still provides a perspective that is enlightening to the period in which it was published and how that narrative aligns with how the emancipationist legacy was being denied in favor of white unity within America.
It follows Scarlett O’Hara who is the beautiful and spoiled daughter of a Georgia plantation owner. It takes place during the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era as the status of the O’Hara family changes dramatically. Scarlett is willing to do whatever it takes to claw her way out of the poverty she now faces.
4. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Our next recommendation for the best Civil War books comes from the father of Jeff Shaara, who wrote the first fiction recommendation on our list. The is the second book in The Civil War Trilogy in order of chronology, but the first book in publication order. That’s because Jeff Shaara wrote a prequel to The Killer Angels two decades later.
Shaara has a tight focus in his narrative by following the four bloodiest days of the Civil War as two sides fought for two dreams. He portrays a dramatic re-creation of the memories, promises, and love that propelled men onto the battlefield. Shaara also shines a light on the trauma of war with the shattered futures, forgotten innocence, and the casualties.
5. March by Geraldine Brooks
Our penultimate recommendation on this list of the best Civil War books is a retelling of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Geraldine Brooks’s alternative version of the American classic won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006.
It takes place during the Civil War from the front lines and follows the March patriarch as a chaplain with the Union cause. March is an idealistic abolitionist, but the war tests his faith in the Union and in himself. As he recovers from a near-fatal illness, he explores the passions between a man and a woman, the tenderness between a parent and a child, and the life-changing power of an ardently held belief.
6. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Finally, if we are to recommend a retelling of Little Women, it would be remiss not to recommend the iconic title itself. It is another iconic pillar of Civil War literature with its setting of New England during the Civil War and enduring themes of love and family.
While the primary focus of this narrative occurs adjacent to the war with the day-to-day lives of those at home, this is still greatly revealing to the all-encompassing impacts of war.
Final thoughts on best Civil War books
To recap, below you will find the lists for our recommendations of the best Civil War books, both nonfiction and fiction. Our attempt in sifting through the hundreds and hundreds of books about this time period was to choose a selection of books that encompassed a variety of perspectives and angles of approach.
This means there are books below written before the Civil War, in the immediate aftermath, a few decades later, and books written this century. The books vary from following an individual through the Civil War, a particular battle, or the aftermath of the Civil War through the Reconstruction era.
- The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885)
- Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)
- Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois (1935)
- This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (2008)
- Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (1996)
- Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar (1990)
- Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom by William and Ellen Craft (1860)
- Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson (1988)
- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight (2001)
- The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner (2010)
- Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight (2018)
- A Stillness at Appomattox: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy by Bruce Catton (1953)
- A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara (2012)
- A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan (1999)
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
- The Killer Angels by Jeff Shaara (1974)
- March by Geraldine Brooks (2005)
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)