Ten Civil War Books That Made Me

Yesterday my wife and I were sitting in my library and she asked me to pick out ten books that have had the most influence on my understanding of Civil War history. I gave it a little thought and began pulling books off my shelves.

Here is what I came up with.

This is not intended in any way as a ‘best of’ or ‘most important’ list of Civil War books. These are books that have helped to shape the kinds of questions I think about, how I think about and interpret evidence, and how I understand the relationship between the past and present. It’s a very personal list.

Most of these books I read when I first became interested in the Civil War era back in the mid-1990s. I did not grow up with an interest in history. My parents did not drag me to historic places like Gettysburg. My introduction to the subject was through serious academic studies like the ones you see here.

I will always be first and foremost a student of history.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

22 comments… add one
  • London John May 22, 2020 @ 0:29

    A couple of books on neglected aspects, IMO. Race and Radicalism in the Union army by Mark A. Lause is about the Army of the Frontier, which as well as a strong African-American contingent had the largest Native American element of any Union army. They sometimes came up against Confederate Native American forces.
    Lincoln’s Loyalists by Richard Current is the only book I know of devoted to white union volunteers from the Confederate states. But no doubt there are many I don’t know of; perhaps someone could recommend.

  • Brad May 21, 2020 @ 14:30

    My list would include some of yours such as Reconstruction, Race and Reunion (that has to be on everybody’s list!) and a bio of Lincoln, although mine would be Robert White’s book. I’d have McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom on my list, David Potter’s The Impending Crisis (one of the best books I’ve ever read), Walter Johnson’ Soul by Soul, Leon Litwak’s Been in the Storm too Long, Douglas Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword and the William Miller books on Lincoln.

  • Matt McKeon Apr 23, 2020 @ 4:32

    I’ve read a lot of civil war books as a kid. But the following books are the ones that formed my thought as an adult:

    Battle Cry of Freedom, especially the lead in to the war
    Fiery Trial by Foner
    Freedom National and Scorpion’s Sting by Oakes
    The Confederate War and the Union War by Gallager
    Confederate Reckoning by McCurry
    Out of the House of Bondage by Glympe
    The Half Has Never Been Told

    Of all the contemporary diaries and journals, I have a lot of fondness for “Army Life in a Black Regiment” the diary of Charlotte Forten and the memoir of Susie King Taylor, all describing from different vantage points, the same experience.

    Possibly the most heartbreaking book is: “Help Me Find My People” about the efforts by the freedpeople to locate the family members sold away during slavery.

    I’m leaving out many, many wonderful books, of course

  • Msb Apr 22, 2020 @ 5:02

    Good list, of which I’ve read fewer than I would like. Faust’s Mothers of Invention was great, and I learned a lot from Rable’s Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism and McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning. Just finished They Were Her Property, a grim but useful read.
    In addition to your book on the absence of black Confederates, I really enjoyed Levine’s Confederate Emancipation.

  • London John Apr 22, 2020 @ 0:14

    These are all books for when you already know the main story, so what did you start with? Ever since McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom came out I’ve assumed it was the definitive overall history. Very strong on the causes IMO. Before that Bruce Catton’s Centennial History seemed widely accepted. You once on this blog referred to “uncredentialled historians” – what do you think about Catton?

  • Joshism Apr 21, 2020 @ 16:49

    Interesting: of your 10 books the only one I’ve read is Foner, and that was the abridged version.

    Mine would be:

    Foote – “Civil War: A Narrative”. I spent much of 10th grade reading the trilogy and it not only helped hook me into the war as a topic of interest (along with Ken Burns and TNT’s “Gettysburg”) but gave me a crucial overview of the entire military history of the conflict.
    Sears – “Gettysburg”
    The book that really launched me into reading heavily about the Civil War which I read because I visited the battlefield.
    David Potter – “The Impending Crisis”
    The definitive argument that the war was caused by slavery.
    McPherson – “Battle Cry of Freedom”
    Best single volume history of the war and the era, hands down. I’m surprised some people find it boring.
    Grimley – “Hard Hand of War”
    A must-read on the subject of Hard War vs Total War.
    McPherson – “For Cause And Comrades
    Essential reading on the mindset of soldiers on both sides.
    Goodwin – “Team of Rivals”
    Kaufman – “American Brutus”
    Trudeau – “Southern Storm”
    Simpson – “Triumph Over Adversity”

    Honorable Mention – Political: Foner – “Fiery Trial”
    Honorable Mentions – Military: Hennessy’s “Return To Bull Run” and Wittenberg’s “Plenty of Blame To Go Around” & “One Continuous Fight”

    I know there’s nothing from Reconstruction on my list. It’s not a topic I have read much about.

  • Robert Ortega Apr 21, 2020 @ 12:58

    I remember a college history professor recommending David Blight’s Race and Reunion. Highly recommended.

  • Nathan Towne Apr 21, 2020 @ 12:23

    That is a very difficult question because the answer fluctuates dramatically depending on what exactly one means. Just looking at it at the broadest macro level and only looking at modern monographs, while I am not sure how to post pictures, the books that immediately jump out to me are:

    Army of the Heartland and Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly
    Days of Glory by Larry J Daniel
    Nothing But Victory: Steven Woodworth
    Michael Burlingame’s two volume biography of Lincoln
    Peter Wallner’s two volume biography of Franklin Pierce
    Phillip Shriver Klein’s biography of Buchanan
    William Cooper’s biography of Jefferson Davis
    Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese
    David Potter’s The Impending Crisis
    Robert Johannsen’s biography of Stephen Douglas
    Hans Trefousse’s biography of Andrew Johnson
    Confederate Supply by Richard Goff
    Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock
    1861 by Adam Goodheart, which is especially valuable as it relates to the nature of the world in which Americans lived at the outbreak of the war.
    Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume biography on Lee

    Of course, that only touches the surface, but those are some of the books which immediately leap out to me as having had the greatest influence on my understanding of events at the most macro levels. Of course, there are many, many more, but I am just trying to offer some perspective across an extremely wide expanse.

  • Andrew Houck Apr 21, 2020 @ 8:49

    Nice list! Carol Reardon’s book really blew my mind when I went back to grad school after 20 years – common myth and shifting perspectives about the Charge and how historiography of Pickett, and of the CW era in general, have been carefully sculpted. Not unlike the enduring myth of black Confederates, right? 😉

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2020 @ 9:50

      Reardon’s book served as a very helpful model for what I wanted to accomplish in my first book on the battle of the Crater.

  • Waymon hinson Apr 21, 2020 @ 5:04

    I note you have Foner here! I am listening to his audio book on Lincoln and how his ideas about slavery evolved. Fascinating book and ideas. Well written.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2020 @ 5:40

      I assume you are listening to The Fiery Trial, which is a wonderful book.

  • paineite Apr 21, 2020 @ 4:58

    Great to see THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD on your list. I believe that book ought to be required reading for anyone interested in any period of American history.

    • Mike Furlan Apr 25, 2020 @ 15:19

      Sorry, but I can’t agree. See Wikipedia for a summary of the discussion about it. (Most of the reviews are behind a paywall, but you can at least read the abstract or first page. I have access through work.)

      “The Half “mishandle[s] historical evidence and mischaracterize[s] important events”.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_E._Baptist

      His heart is in the right place, but it is bad scholarship.

      For a better understanding of slavery, I’d substitute, Patterson’s “Slavery and Social Death.” He explains how slavery was horrible, even if the slave was not being flogged on a regular basis.

      https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674986909

      • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2020 @ 16:19

        I appreciate the comment, but we will have to agree to disagree. I certainly don’t rely on Wikipedia to judge scholarship.

        • Mike Furlan Apr 25, 2020 @ 17:35

          Wikipedia is just a pointer to the review articles.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2020 @ 1:11

            I understand, but even the links includes a review by Eric Foner, which argues that the book breaks “new ground.” There is nothing unusual about negative reviews of scholarly books. It’s part of the process. For me the book was incredibly important in how I think about the institution of slavery.

      • Nathan Towne May 6, 2020 @ 8:16

        I own the book, but I have, to this point, only read several sections of it. With that said, I have read enough of it to understand and to briefly address a few of the larger points which he makes in it.

        I partially agree with his thesis, in that slavery certainly operated as a “capitalistic” institution in the sense that it operated on the basis of ownership, sale, e.t.c. and that it became thoroughly engrained into the American system and economy. There is no doubt that this correct.

        However, I disagree with the conclusion that he consequently reaches from this in which he concludes that this tells us a great deal about a capitalistic or free enterprise system in and of itself, because he is, in my view, mingling together two concepts which are really very different. On the one hand, there is capitalism, solely in the sense of private ownership of the means of production. In this, very limited sense, slavery is not inherently antithetical to the principle. On the other hand, however, capitalism, as a system, is really an outgrowth of the notions of free enterprise and classical liberal theory, which is based on several underlying principles which are absolutely fundamental, namely, the right of all people to pursue their own life, liberty and property, provided that they do not infringe upon the life, liberty and property of their fellow persons, within which, people are free to make their own economic decisions, without privilege, monopoly or artificial scarcity. In this sense, slavery is completely inimical to the principles of free enterprise and consequently to a capitalist system, even if it can operate in a “capitalistic” manner, as Baptist rightly propounds that it did in the United States, concurrent to and interwoven with the other operations of free enterprise. Simply because something is consistent with the nature of the operation of a “capitalistic” system, does not mean that it is therefore consistent with the principles which are foundational to that system which are, again, embodied in classical liberal theory and in the concept of free enterprise. These principles, I think, are absolutely fundamental. Not everything done in the name of free enterprise is really free enterprise and simply because a system operates in a “capitalistic” manner does not make it consistent with the nature of the basic ideas. As a result, we can’t draw the types of broad conclusions, at least that he is reaching here, which he seems to be drawing about those underlying concepts, by analyzing slavery.

        I also disagree with the other primary element of his thesis, which is to essentially to re-articulate the narrative that the greatness and the wealth of the nation can be predominantly tied to slavery. I think that this is clearly not so. Following the war and the abolition of slavery, the United States greatly extended its position, over the next three quarters of a century, as the greatest power on Earth, greatly widening the gap with every other nation. By the turn of the twentieth century, there is absolutely no semblance of a doubt, that the United States stood as the most powerful nation in the history of the world. This is, I think, irreconcilable with his conclusion in this regard. With that said, it is very possible, that he would respond by emphasizing that one can simply add colonialism/imperialism and the history of racism in America, to slavery, in order to account for this, but his argument in the book is specifically focused on slavery and hence that is the point which should be addressed directly. Furthermore, if such was the response, the historical record does not lend support to that conclusion, either, for a whole litany of reasons, although I will leave that to a discussion for another time, as, again, that isn’t specifically the point which he is making in The Half Has Never Been Told.

        Beyond this, he makes a fairly large number of elementary mistakes regarding the historical record, which sometimes are debilitating to the arguments or conclusions which he draws from them. In this, I don’t want to be unusually harsh though, in that this is not something which is, by any means, unique to him in the literature. Every book makes mistakes. It is just a matter of degree. The Half Has Never Been Told makes more than many others, but also certainly far less than some.

        I would also note that he sometimes makes statements or reaches conclusions without seeming to provide any real basis for that conclusion, or statement. While very much a side issue, one that stuck out to me were his statements regarding Fletcher vs. Peck, the Supreme Court decision from 1810 which held that the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibited the State of Georgia from voiding contracts for the transfer of land, despite those contracts having been secured through bribery. Showing disdain for the holding of the court, he tries to paint it as something akin to a gift to slavery, calling it something along the lines of a decision rendered “with the footprints of slavery across its back.” That is just one, probably pedestrian example, among many, but these are the types of leaps which he makes that come across as neither fair, nor accurate.

        Nonetheless, in other ways, I found his discussions of slavery to be useful and insightful, especially in his characterizing of the basic nature of the operation of slavery in America. Even so, there is wide room for disagreement on many things, but he does do a good job of providing a solid picture of the basic nature and thrust of the institution.

        With those things said, as stated at the top, I haven’t read the book in its entirety, so I can’t really provide a full or comprehensive synopsis on everything contained in it. Yet, I have certainly read enough of it to come to those conclusions.

  • Steven Maher Apr 21, 2020 @ 4:16

    I really couldn’t do a list like this because I wouldn’t know how to count Allan Nevins, is that four books or eight? I’d have to count Foote, Catton and William Davis for hooking me in, only to be displaced by McPherson, Potter, Freehling. Far to many to list, and way to much to keep moving.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2020 @ 4:29

      It is incredibly difficult and I suspect that if I had to do it again you might see a few different titles included.

    • Brad Greenberg Apr 21, 2020 @ 6:50

      I thing that serieses should count based on how you read them.. For example, I would Shelby Foote’s series “The Civil War” as one book because that is how I read it:as I finished volume one,I started volume two the next day.. On the other hand, I would list the books in Sydney Blumenthal’s series “The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln” as separate books because I am reading them as they are published..

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