Special Report

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

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.

About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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