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Must-Reads Books about the Civil War – A Military Connection Top 10 List

Must-Reads Books about the Civil War– A Military Connection Top 10 List

contributed by Cory Davenport

While kids are going back to school, the last days of summer are officially here. However, the pools are still open and the grills are still hot, and fans of reading about Civil War history have plenty of options from which they can choose. Books set during the Civil War are an American favorite with some of them even being made into major motion pictures as early in cinema history as Gone with the Wind. For this list, we chose books not only set during the Civil War, but the best books specifically about the war itself. This is a mix of historical fiction and nonfiction perfect for anyone with a passion and some spare time to recline with a good book.

10.The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

This historical fiction is rooted in truth and based on a spinster named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew, who actually existed. Van Lew was a wealthy heiress of Virginia who was loyal to Abraham Lincoln and the Union. While openly arguing for better treatment of Union soldiers held in captivity, she finds herself smuggling messages from them to their northern commanders, creating an elaborate spy network. Many of her daring stunts may seem impossible, but her efforts may have helped secure a union victory more than anyone may ever truly know.


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9.The Fate of Liberty: Lincoln & Civil Liberties by Mark E. Neely Jr.

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of nonfiction explores the controversial decisions President Abraham Lincoln made while at the helm of a nation ripped apart by war. Such extreme actions as suspending the writ of habeas corpus, which ensures Americans have the right to face a judge and be told why they are being detained and, mostly, to secure their release, are explored by Neely. Neely goes in depth to explain why this was done, who was arrested, and several other abuses of power under martial law during his administration. This is perfect for the amateur historian interested in how a government is ran through a civil war.


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8. Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

Hicks’s debut novel is a work of historical Civil War fiction based on yet another true story. This one is based on the historically-verified Carrie McGavock whose home was converted into a Confederate field hospital during the Battle of Franklin. During the five hours of battle, more than 9,000 casualties were reported, including the deaths of four generals. Hicks follows her through the chaos as well as her decision of transforming her personal plantation home to such a gory location. After the fog of war settled, McGavock established and tended to a Confederate cemetery on her property containing more than a thousand dead soldiers.


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7. Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

Finishing his father’s story, Shaara wrote this as a prequel to the universally-lauded Killer Angels penned by his father, Michael Shaara before his death. Jeff Shaara’s work of well-researched historical fiction goes beyond the confines of the Civil War, humanizing Civil War leaders from each side of the Mason-Dixon Line. In this novel, Jeff Shaara explores Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s previous life as a Christian and military instructor, Winfield Scott Hancock, a Union hero, and his position as a quartermaster captain, Joshua Chamberlain’s decision to derail his academic promise to fight in the war, and the immortal (and sometimes infamous) Robert E. Lee as he battles his own denial of an imminent Civil War. The film by the same name was based on this novel.


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6. Jubilee by Margaret Walker

Written during the peak of the American Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, Jubilee is based on the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and his slave. Walker learned the story from her grandmother, who herself was the child of Vyry. As Walker explores her great-grandmother’s history, she guides the reader through the prewar South into the war and subsequent Reconstruction. Prior to writing it, Walker spent no less than three decades diligently researching her grandmother’s oral histories to ensure their accuracy. This blend of informed historical fiction and family history offers a unique perspective from one of the human beings directly affected by the war, its causes, and the policies passed and enforced in its aftermath.


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5. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James McPherson

This work of nonfiction explores the reasons why men chose to fight for each side during the Civil War. A renowned historian, McPherson does deep exploration into those causes through primary sources, such as letters to loved ones from real Civil War veterans and their private diaries. He had access to more than 25,000 such letters and 250 diaries from Union and Confederate sympathizers. McPherson also explores the culture and important values from each side and how such concepts as liberty, justice, patriotism, and freedom contributed to their decisions. Many of the forces driving them to fight nearly two centuries ago are still causing patriots to serve their nations today, making this must-read a timeless look at military motivations.


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4. The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

One of the best orators of his time, Frederick Douglass dedicated his life to abolition and political service. His collection of writings give a firsthand account of slavery eloquent and accessible enough to promote the cause of abolition across the nation. As states’ rights to own and recover captured slaves was the largest factor in the war’s start, Douglass’s perspective is an invaluable look at the roots of the conflict from someone forced into bondage. Later in his life, following the war, Douglass fought endlessly for the rights of newly-freed slaves. While the nation itself went to war, Douglass believed in using his gift of words to solve political and racial conflict in the United States. His writings best illustrate the war of words and ideas fueling the real military conflict of cannonballs and sharpshooters.


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Before we get to the top three, there are two honorary mentions. The first is The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove. This novel can barely be called historical fiction and should much more likely be thrown into the sci-fi genre. In this outrageous look at the American Civil War, Turtledove imagines a group of time-traveling South Africans, who support slavery, granting Confederate General Robert E. Lee AK-47’s as well as advanced medicine, military intelligence, and other out-of-places pieces of technology, resulting in a Confederate victory before having a quarrel with the benefactors from the future. This novel is for someone in the mood to read something off the beaten path. It is one of many alternate history books penned by Turtledove, and most of them are some degree of outrageous. On the exact opposite side of that, the second honorable mention is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Union General of Armies and American President Ulysses S. Grant tells his own history, including his historic feats of the war in his personal memoirs. These include such instances as the acceptance of surrender at Appomattox Courthouse from Robert E. Lee. This is a must-read for history buffs who want to know how one of the greatest generals in American history felt about the war which made him famous.


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3. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

One of the great American novelists, Crane paints a vivid picture of the carnage of the Civil War through the eyes of his protagonist, Private Henry Fleming of the Union Army. Fleming runs from the battlefield. Feeling an abundance of shame for his cowardice, Fleming wishes he could become wounded. The book is named for such a wound, as they were considered “red badges of courage.” Crane himself was born after the war, but conducted interviews with several Civil War veterans still alive at the time to research this work of historical fiction. Because of his in-depth research through building personal relationships and gaining insight on the inner world of soldiers from the war, Crane is still known for writing this as one of the most realistic fictionalized accounts of war. He was not only able to perfectly capture the hellish carnage and massive loss of life and chaos, he was able to profoundly convey the inner thoughts, fears, and monologue of a young and unprepared soldier.


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2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Another basis for a wildly-popular movie, Frazier tells of the odyssey of Inman, a Confederate soldier who no longer wants to fight. He has lost his motivations and no longer believes in the cause. Instead of fighting, Inman begins a long journey on foot to his old home in the Blue Ridge Mountains where his old love, Ada, waits for him. The journey through the war-torn south has Inman meeting many characters from slaves to soldiers and practitioners of magic. This work of historical fiction perfectly encapsulates the dismal feelings of war. It also explores the perspective of Ada who is struggling to adjust to the new world created by the Civil War while restoring her home. This novel has it all – love, home, war, and the complicated nature of the human experience when exposed to those.


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1. Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

While the prequel to this epic piece of historical fiction was already mentioned, the best work from the father and son Shaara duo is this one. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel was the basis for the film Gettysburg. It follows each of the four days of that bloody battle through shifting narratives. Each day is told from the perspective of commanders representing the Union and the Confederacy. Shaara’s writing goes in depth with each decision made on that battlefield, taking in maps and emotions and granting it a new level of authenticity with each passing scene. While the Battle of Gettysburg is retold in vivid detail, Shaara uses their inner monologues and narration to show the larger issues driving the Civil War, forcing brother against brother and friend against friend. Not only is this work from Shaara our top pick of books about the Civil War, it is one of the great American novels of the 20th century.


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Love Military Content in Books and Movies?

Follow along as we cover the best war books from every era.  You can also check out Military Connection’s Greatest War Movie Series where we cover the best war films of every era from the American Revolution to Post 9/11, plus categories like women in military moviesbest battle scenes and more. 

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