The Essentials: Six Books on the Civil War

These six histories of the Civil War that are must-reads if you want to better understand the conflict

Civil War soldiers reading letters from home
A group of officers in Culpeper, Virginia reading letters from home. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The literature on the war is so vast you could spend a lifetime reading really good books about it. Here are six excellent ones:

Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), by James McPherson: Widely regarded as the most authoritative one-volume history of the war.

The Fiery Trial (2010), by Eric Foner: A new Pulitzer-Prize-winning and authoritative account of President Abraham Lincoln's navigation through the politics of abolition; it won the Pulitzer Prize for History.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), by Drew Gilpin Faust: A moving examination of the ways in which the slaughter changed Americans' ideas on mortality and influenced the way they chose to remember the war.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885): it "surpasses any other military memoir of the Civl War and stands alone as the best presidential autobiography every published," says Joan Waugh, author of U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (2009), itself a fine biography.

Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1934-35), by Douglas Southall Freeman: A portrait of the man in full four volumes on the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981), edited by C. Vann Woodward: a collection of writings, in diary form, of the doyenne whose sharp eye and tart tongue left an indelible impression of civilian life in the South during the war years.