The Civil War 1861 To 1865


No one has ever come up with a satisfactory count of the books dealing with the Civil War. Estimates range from 50,000 to more than 70,000, with new titles added every day. All that can be said for certain is that the Civil War is easily the most written-about era of the nation’s history. Consequently, to describe this 10-best list as subjective is to stretch that word almost out of shape. Indeed my association with 2 of the 10 may be regarded as suspect. My reply is that this association made me only more aware of the merits of these titles.

Silently transmuting “books” into “works” allowed me to include a pair of dual selections. In the case of Bell Irvin Wiley’s classics there is justification for this, for The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank have appeared since their original publication in a single volume under the title The Common Soldier in the Civil War. That edition, alas, is no longer in print, although the individual volumes are available in paperback. As for Bruce Carton’s two-volume Grant biography, it is simply too important a work to be excluded.

No campaign or battle histories are on the list, for good reason: There are simply too many first-rate ones to choose from. The outburst of Civil War writing over the past two or three decades has left no important battle unrecorded, all of them covered at least competently and many superbly. There are also too many well-done unit histories to permit selecting a best one, and of a seemingly endless list of biographies, only those of the two most important figures can be represented here.

For those willing to absorb their Civil War history in longer takes, there are of course three classics: Allan Nevins’s all-inclusive four-volume study of the war years, The War for the Union; Shelby Foote’s justly acclaimed three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative; and what in my view is the capstone of Bruce Catton’s distinguished career, The Centennial History of the Civil War, in three volumes. For those seeking the look of the war, there is Ken Burns’s incomparable 11½-hour film The Civil War. But as a compass for navigating this vast sea of literature, these 10 selections ought to suffice.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

by James M. McPherson (1988; Oxford). This one-volume study of the Civil War apparently met an unfulfilled need: It was 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and sales during its first decade exceeded 500,000 copies. He and his publisher, said McPherson, “were equally astonished by the book’s commercial success.” In fact, no previous author had come close to matching McPherson at melding all the military, political, economic, and social aspects of the era into a single narrative. Nor has any author matched him since. Battle Cry of Freedom is a long read (900-plus pages) but engrossing and immensely rewarding.

Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America

by William C. Davis (2002; Simon & Schuster). “The Confederacy has always been a great story,” Davis writes in his preface, and then he proceeds to do full justice to the tale. Confederate history balanced on a dilemma: “Throughout there runs a thread of a people whose rulers were trying to bring a link from their past into a new nation in a modern world, to create what they thought they wanted without giving up what they thought they needed.” Davis explains it all crisply and authoritatively, leaving the reader with the distinct impression that this is how it really was in Dixie.


by David Herbert Donald (1995; Simon & Schuster). Harvard’s Donald shaped this monumental biography, he tells us, around “Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him. It seeks to explain rather than to judge.” The result emphasizes the sixteenth President’s astonishing capacity for growth, the trait that enabled “one of the least experienced and most poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become the greatest American President.”

Grant Moves South (1960; Little, Brown) and Grant Takes Command (1969; Little, Brown)

by Bruce Catton. The Union’s greatest soldier, superbly delineated by the Civil War’s greatest historian. This is purely military biography. Grant Moves South carries the story through Vicksburg, and Grant Takes Command concludes it at a grand review in May 1865. Carton’s eye for “the unpronounceable man” is unerring.

Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command