A Guide to Civil War Books for Beginners, Part 1: Civil War Overviews

by Brett Schulte on July 21, 2008 · 8 comments

This is the first of hopefully many blog entries for beginning Civil War readers about Civil War books they might like to read.  This is not a post aimed at children or young adults, though I do hope to target those audiences in the future as well.  Instead, I hope to provide a nice guide for those who are brand new to reading about the American Civil War. I tend to forget that readers new to the topic of the Civil War will be drawn to this and other Civil War blogs quite often by Google and other web searches. Reader Paul H. from Northampton, England was kind enough to suggest this subject for a blog entry, and I think it is such a great idea that I’m expanding the scope into multiple blog posts.

In this first entry, I’m going to try to look at overviews of the war. I encourage others to chime in as well in the comments below. I’m just one person. The more you know about the Civil War, the more you realize how much you will never know. You could spend an entire lifetime studying the war and you’ll never get to it all. Trust me, I’m trying! 😉

There are numerous studies of the Civil War and the Civil War era, single and multi-volume works, some focusing on military aspects of the war, others on social aspects, and still others with a political bent.  The list below is not meant to be exhaustive by any means.  I’m sure I will miss someone’s favorite history of the war.  If that happens, by all means add your favorite in the comments below.

In each case, I will include a picture of a reasonably recent version of the book, a link to Amazon.com, and a short background.  I haven’t read some of these books in a long time, and others I’ve not read at all.  However, rest assured I’ve done the homework for you so you don’t have to do it yourself!  The idea is to answer a question I get asked a lot and have a permanent place to store my answer for readers to use in the future.

McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, USA (December 11, 2003).  952 pp.  ISBN: 978-0195168952 $19.95 (Paperback)

The first overview I’ll start with is going to be the one most people knowledgeable about this topic would recommend.  This is of course James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom.  McPherson’s one volume history of the war is recognized as the standard account of the subject.  The author spends time on all aspects of the war, social, political, and military.  In fact, the first 300+ pages describe events PRIOR to the firing on Fort Sumter.  McPherson’s book is highly readable and summarizes events nicely, providing a starting point for further study.  To be fair, I want to note some criticisms of McPherson as well.  Dimitri Rotov of Civil War Bookshelf, for instance, believes that McPherson subscribes to what he calls a “Centennial” view of history.  According to Dimitri, this “Centennial” view is in vogue today because Bruce Catton and others involved with American Heritage magazine around the time of the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s made it extremely popular.  He believes this view is too simplified and does a disservice to many of the events, people, and places involved, especially George McClellan.  These concerns noted, I believe McPherson does a good job summarizing what was in 1988 the orthodox view of the Civil War.  Start your Civil War reading here and you will have a solid basis for wherever the topic takes you in the future.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 3 vols.  Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (November 12, 1986).  2,934 pp.  ISBN: 978-0394749136 $78.00 (Paperback)

If McPherson’s book is the standard one-volume work, Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative is its multi-volume companion.   Many of you have probably seen Shelby Foote, possibly without realizing it.  Foote was a frequent commentator who was often seen in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War.  He was there for a reason.  Foote had already written this trilogy by the time of Burns’ film.  The first volume was originally released in 1958, the second volume in 1963, and the last in 1974.  Foote’s trilogy is concentrates more on the military aspects of the Civil War, though political and social elements are there to a lesser extent.  The three volumes are Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian, and Red River to Appomattox, in order.  The trilogy is subtitled “A Narrative” for a reason.  It is!  Foote was a novelist by trade and his writing style reflects his profession.  There is a story to tell and Foote does so with relish.  Although the entire work is almost 3,000 pages long, as a reader you move merrily along, always wanting more.  Foote makes history exciting and interesting, something many people today fail to realize or appreciate.  A Southerner by birth, Foote does have some Confederate bias.  Some critics have also mentioned small errors in his work.  With these criticisms out of the way, I wholeheartedly urge readers to read these books.  Foote’s trilogy, for more than just sentimental reasons, is probably my favorite Civil War book.  Do not let the length deter you.  Give it a chance!

Camp Pope Publishing

Catton, Bruce. Bruce Catton’s Civil War. 3 vols.  Phoenix Press (2001) 1,680 pp.  ISBN: 978-1898800224 Out of Print (Paperback)

Another famous multi-volume work on the Civil War is Bruce Catton’s trilogy.  Consisting of The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat, Catton’s trilogy was written just before and during the centennial years of the Civil War, 1961-1965.  Catton’s work is shorter than Foote’s, and he focuses more on the political and social aspects than Foote did.  Due to the shorter length, Catton tends to delve into certain controversies more quite a bit less than Foote does, and he tends to tie up loose ends quite neatly, much more neatly than real life.  This is one of the criticisms of Centennial history, that controversies have been decided and that no further study of these controversies is necessary.  A good example would be the Lee’s lost order just prior to Antietam.  Buy Catton’s books over Foote’s if you have less time initially to get into the study of the Civil War or if you prefer the political and social aspects of the war.  Although the lead-in says “Out of Print”, you should be able to find the various volumes in paperback for reasonable prices.

I feel these three are the starting point for a solid foundation.  There are numerous other histories, one volume and otherwise, which attempt to tell the story of the war.  I’ve excluded these from any kind of analysis for various reasons, including cost, availability, and too much focus on one portion of the war, be it military, social, or political.  Let me know if you’d like me to flesh out any of the titles below in a future post.  These are in alphabetical order by author’s last name, if you were wondering.

Davis, Kenneth. Don’t Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know About America’s Greatest Conflict but Never Learned (Don’t Know Much About…). Harper Paperbacks (September 1, 1999). 544 pp. ISBN: 978-0380719082 $14.95 (Paperback)

Dickson, Keith. The Civil War for Dummies. For Dummies; 1 edition (March 15, 2001). 408 pp. ISBN: 978-0764552441 $19.99 (Paperback)

Eicher, David. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War.  Simon & Schuster (August 20, 2002).  992 pp. ISBN: 978-0684849454 $22.00 (Paperback)

Flagel, Thomas. The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War. Cumberland House Publishing (August 2003). 400 pp. ISBN: 978-1581823714 $16.95 (Paperback)

Hansen, Harry. The Civil War: A History. Signet Classics (August 6, 2002). 672 pp.  ISBN: 978-0451528490 $8.95 (Paperback)

Hattaway, Herman. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. University of Illinois Press (June 1, 1991). 784 pp. ISBN: 978-0252062100 $26.95 (Paperback)

Olsen, Christopher. The American Civil War: A Hands-on History. Hill and Wang; 1st edition (July 24, 2007).  304 pp. ISBN: 978-0809016402 $15.00 (Paperback)

Pratt, Fletcher. A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire.  Dover Publications (July 7, 1997). 448 pp. ISBN: 978-0486297026 $13.95 (Paperback)

Weigley, Russell. A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History 1861-1865. Indiana University Press (February 2004).  648 pp. ISBN: 978-0253217066 $24.95 (Paperback)

Williams, David. A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom. New Press (September 25, 2006). 608 pp. ISBN: 978-1595581259 $24.95 (Paperback)

I think I’ve covered enough overviews of the war for anyone looking to get into the subject.  As I stated earlier, feel free to add your own additions or your views on my picks in the comments section below.

If you enjoyed this first blog entry in my “Guides to Civil War Books for Beginners” and would like to see more, by all means send me suggestions for what topic you would like me to look at next.  I already have plans to look at the best army overviews, best regimentals, and best books for children in future entries.  Let me know what else you would like to see!

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To end this post, I’d like to post some of my background for readers new to TOCWOC to see.  Although I do not have a degree in history (Match/Computer Science degree from the University of Illinois-Champaign), I have loved the subject my entire life.  I cannot remember a time in my life in which I did not love studying the Civil War.  I read Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the Civil War (which you will read about below) in the 6th grade.  My teacher did not believe I was truly reading the books until he sat down with me to have a half hour chat on the subject.  He was convinced afterwards!  I’ve been reading detailed campaign and battle studies since approximately 1990 as a 12 year old.  My collection now sits at around 600 books and growing.  This blog holds many of the book reviews I’ve done over the past several years.  Feel free to click on the Categories link at the top of the page and look through the “Books – Reviews” category for details.  Civil War wargaming has always been a passion of mine as well.  I was a playtester for many years on the HPS Simulations line of Civil War games.  I’ve helped Mad Minute Games as a playtester and consultant in the past, and I am currently working with NorbSoftDev, whose programmer designed the Mad Minute “Take Command” series of Civil War tactical simulators.  I host many CivilWar add-on and modding sites for recent Civil War games.  The full list is located on my Civil War Wargame Mods home page.


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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

badgervan July 21, 2008 at 9:30 pm

Excellent choices. One idea for your series might be unit histories, preferably by someone who served in the unit…. company, brigade, regiment, etc…. any unit. I find these much more enlightening as to why these guys could stand in face to face lines a hundred yards apart and blaze away with .58 cal (!) weapons for sometimes hours at a time. And I’m firmly convinced, being a yankee who lived in the deep south for eight years, that the South still despises the North, and has never gotten over losing that war….. and won’t really admit the truth of what it was all about.

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elektratig July 22, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Brett,

Just to propose an entirely different approach, let me . . . propose an entirely different approach.

Although I had read McPherson’s Battle Cry eons ago, little stuck. Many years later, I picked up his book on Antietam. I figured I’d re-start small, as it were. Well, it did the trick. The Lost Order . . . England and France . . . that idiot McClellan . . . I was hooked.

Sometimes, for some people, starting small and in medias res works best.

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admin July 22, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Elektratig,

That’s an interesting point and one that resonates a little with my own personal experience. The first books which hooked me were the American Heritage book on the Battle of Gettysburg and two novels for young adults, Across Five Aprils and Rifles for Watie. It was only after these experiences had sucked me in and held me before I bought and read Bruce Catton’s one-volume history of the war. With that in mind, I’ll look to do a few entries in this series highlighting good short reads, let’s say “the five best books on portions of a major battle”, or “the best introductory looks at five major battles”, or “five little-known introductions to the Civil War period you’ll love”, etc. Feel free to add to that list.

Brett

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admin July 22, 2008 at 8:54 pm

Badgervan,

Thanks! I appreciate the compliment. I’d love to do a post on first person accounts, but I’ll be honest and admit I’m not very well-read when it comes to first person accounts. It’s something I’ve kept in mind while buying new books and I do have a nice collection of diaries and other books which look at the war through the eyes of those who were there. I just haven’t had the time to read them yet! It sounds like this IS an area of expertise for you. Perhaps you would like to write a “guest entry” in this series? I would welcome the help.

Brett

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Richard D. Boles July 22, 2008 at 10:50 pm

Excellent choices for those who are beginning to hear the guns.

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Roger L. Guffey February 6, 2009 at 12:20 pm

I am looking for good study guides to Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Do you know of any such resources that a teacher can access?

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John Poulsen September 26, 2016 at 6:28 pm

Hi,I have a question about beginner books and overviews of the civil war.between the two books books you have listed,the one by Fletcher Pratt and Christopher Olsen which is going to be the most easy to read and the best to start off with if you haven’t read on the civil war before?
John

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