Best Book About Civil War
October 10, 2009 6:30 AM   Subscribe

What's the best single book to read about the American Civil War? I have only time and interest for one book, a fondness for historical fiction but desire to be informed about the background, history, politics and social/cultural significance of the war.
posted by NorthCoastCafe to Education (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Bruce Catton's The Civil War is a decent place to start. If you like that, read his whole series. Shelby Foote's series is another set to look at, but it's not just one book. It was a hell of a war to get into a single volume.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:41 AM on October 10, 2009

An alternative, if you dig film also, is Ken Burns' The Civil War.
posted by netbros at 7:07 AM on October 10, 2009

I never pass up an opportunity to recommend Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1975.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:12 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

*The* Killer Angels, that is.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:12 AM on October 10, 2009

Battlecry of Freedom by McPherson is an epic tome, covering all aspects that led up to the war.

he won a Pulitzer for it.
posted by Max Power at 7:13 AM on October 10, 2009

The Destructive War is also a good read, a little more intimate, but worth a perusal.
posted by Max Power at 7:16 AM on October 10, 2009

I think the definitive single-volume work -- which also happens to be a great read -- is James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. It's part of Oxford's series on American history, and does an extraordinary job of pulling in all the elements of context and consequences -- from military history to social and political history -- while remaining wonderfully engaging and readable.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:16 AM on October 10, 2009

Seconding Max Power and foxy hedgehog: it's McPherson.
posted by Beardman at 7:47 AM on October 10, 2009

Seconding Ken Burns and McPherson's. Probably McPherson's.

Do not make the mistake I made in junior high of reading the entire book "oldest living confederate widow tells all" thinking eventually she'd get to the history stuff.
posted by variella at 7:54 AM on October 10, 2009

I have read a few dozen books by now on this war and the best overall was "Battlecry of Freedom." It is generally recognized as one of the best if not the best overall books on the subject and it meets your needs for the background, history, politics and social/cultural significance, which is another reason I loved this book. For the most engaging reading and also quite informative I would recommend Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy of which "A Stillness at Appomattox" is just amazing.
posted by caddis at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2009

Another enthusiastic recommendation for McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.
posted by dfan at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2009

Second "Battlecry of Freedom"
posted by hwestiii at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2009

I've read a lot of books about the Civil War, and Catton's book was by far the best. Definitely the right choice.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:45 AM on October 10, 2009

Catton's 3 volume history of the entire war "the Centennial History of the Civil War" (not the Army of the Potomac series) is the best (The Gathering Storm, Terrible Swift Sword, Never Call Retreat).

If you can only read one book, well, I'd read Grant's Memoirs. No less that Gertrude Stein called it the best American autobiography ever. Grant is a terrific writer, and he is the pivotal figure of the war (excluding Lincoln, of course), as he kicks everyone's ass. Plus he is an incredible figure--at war's beginning, he is working under his younger brother in his dad's tanning shop, having been forced to resign his commission some years earlier. 4 years later, he holds the highest rank ever bestowed on an American Officer and commands the largest army ever to be deployed on the surface of the Earth to that time. An amazing person.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2009

I don't know the best book, but I've read Killer Angels by Schaara and about 4 other books on the historical civil war Leaders (Longstreet, Grant, Lee, Winfield Scott)by his son. Excellent, excellent writing. Less history than recreation of the battle field conditions, the ignorance of the combatants, the need for making decisions without all the information, etc.

Also, unlike so many of the usual nonfiction books, the pages on the Schaara books seem to turn themselves. It is captivating, exciting stuff.


posted by Kalepa at 11:42 AM on October 10, 2009

Nthing McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Once you've read it, you may -- as I did -- suddenly have more interest in other Civil War books. That was the one that got me over my previous distaste for reading about the subject.
posted by bryon at 12:36 PM on October 10, 2009

Battle Cry of Freedom.
posted by beachhead2 at 3:10 PM on October 10, 2009

For fascinating view of the Civil War concentrating on the dead and how they were identified and treated, read This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust.

I'm suggesting this because, as other have suggested, you're not going to find a decently comprehensive book that covers the events of the Civil War in one volume. Faust's book, however, gives great information on an aspect of the Civil War not often covered by other texts.
posted by elder18 at 3:23 PM on October 10, 2009

Grant's Memoirs. Edited by Mark Twain. The story of many of the most pivotal campaigns of the Civil War, from the pen of the general that designed and prosecuted them, often complete with correspondence to and from his sub-commanders and President Lincoln. Carries over into the postwar years, when Grant was elected to serve as President of the still healing union, in the wake of Lincoln's assassination. Written in the last days of Grant's life, with the certain goal of appealing to the mass audience, as a means for Grant to provide a financial legacy for his family, after being cheated out of his fortune in the previous year, in bad financial deals.

Entirely under recommended in our time, and deserving of a far greater modern readership than it receives.
posted by paulsc at 4:05 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older I will not eat green potatoes and ham.   |   Excuse me, are you from around here? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.