There are literally THOUSANDS of books on the Civil War, here’s 5 recommended authors and books that are historically accurate, well written, and balanced in their approach to both the North and South. The trick is to understand the difference between authors and books. Some authors like Shelby Foote only wrote 1 CW book, but it’s a masterpiece. Others, like James McPherson, has pegged his entire career on being a Civil War writer and not all his books are masterpieces. You get the idea.
5 Best Civil War History Authors and Books (in no particular ranking)
• SHELBY FOOTE. Shelby Foote has written THE preeminent volume on the Civil War, there is nothing out there that even rivals this 3-volume series which is so perfect, it’s simply called “The Civil War.” No other window dressing is needed. It’s over 1 million words and a literary giant among any genre. Foote’s narrative style is really what weaves together such a complicated and dramatic historical time period and makes the pages just fly by – he spent 20 years researching and writing it!
There are several versions (editions) out there, I’d recommend the 2011 Box Set. This gem is one of the centerpieces of my book collection.
• THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CONFEDERATE GOVERNMENT. This is a 2-volume series written by the President of the Confederate States of America (CSA) Jefferson Davis. He wrote this superlative narrative while imprisoned by Abraham Lincoln at the conclusion of the war, he finally published it in its full form in 1881.
Leaving partisan politics aside, The Rise of the Confederate Government and The Fall of the Confederate Government are amazingly detailed accounts of the Civil War. From behind the scenes bickering to budget reports and troop statistics, Jeff Davis reveals himself as possessing a wonderfully powerful intellect. His personal revelations of triumph and tragedy bring home a more human side to the war as well.
• JAMES MCPHERSON. Not many other Civil War authors are more revered than James McPherson. He has written countless books on the subject from a multitude of different angles. His best known publication might be Battle Cry of Freedom; he also did a forward for one of the reprintings of the above recommendation. This is interesting because James McPherson definitely has a Northern bias when writing about the Civil War.
In his book Embattled Rebel, McPherson states: “Full disclosure is necessary. My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War” (2014: 5). I applaud James McPherson for writing that! Ironically, it conveys his sense of integrity and transparency in handling a book about the life of Jefferson Davis and the South. Like all great scholars, he goes on to realize that labels like ‘North’ and ‘South’ only serve to cloud and obfuscate our judgements toward historical figures and personalities when in fact there is much we can learn from them.
Author James McPherson has a slew of books available on Amazon and is the doyen of Civil War history.
• CARL SANDBURG – LINCOLN. Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years is another literary masterpiece. What makes this volume so important as a Civil War reference is that is written from the perspective of the then-President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Carl Sandburg tirelessly and tediously researched every scrap of information he could about the Civil War and President Lincoln, in fact he spent 30 years preparing to write this volume!
Beginning his task in the 1890s, Sandburg is the only author who was able to interview living subjects that knew and worked with President Lincoln! He didn’t just do paper research, he did first-hand research seeking out war survivors, Presidential aides, songs, etc., along with his own memory of hearing stories about the Civil War from his youth. Time has disallowed anyone to be Carl Sandburg’s equal.
To illustrate the monumental size of his work, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years is a single-volume book (one of many versions) that is 762 pages. As the title implies, both The Prairie Years and The War Years were originally published as separate volumes. However, both of those are distilled down versions of his original 6 VOLUME set on the subject of Lincoln and the Civil War – each volume being about 500 pages!
I am lucky to have this original 6-volume set gracing my book collection.
Don’t get overwhelmed. If you are looking for a “good read” on the Civil War, Carl Sandburg’s writing style will make you laugh and want to read more. He is a brilliant writer who interjects Lincolnisms at every stage of his narrative and is much more akin to a storyteller than a dry historian. Abraham Lincoln was such a fascinating personality and Sandburg makes you feel like you are right in the room with the President hearing his thoughts and making decisions along side him.
Here’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years in its single-volume version, the one I have and recommend. There are others out there but I do stress that if you are going to purchase such a paragon of literature, just invest in the hard cover!
• CIVIL WAR ILLUSTRATED EDITIONS. Words are just not enough! When you are reading about the Civil War I’ve found that having an illustrated companion makes things so much more fun. I would recommend getting some coffee table-ish book that has pictures and illustrations of people, battles, uniforms, etc. There are tons out there so there should be plenty to choose from.
James McPherson has illustrated editions to some of his books, Sandburg’s The Prairie Years and The War Years has one as well and is one of my favorites. Book stores like Barnes & Noble usually have these in the discount area and you can walk away with one without spending much.
That’s my 5 Best Civil War History Authors and Books. I hope you enjoy learning about the American Civil War through (actually) reading a book, it’s such a worthwhile pastime and one that cultivates the intellect and preserves our family history.