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Great Civil War Books: An Author’s Reading List

by Bruce Levine

When this blog’s editor invited me to name the ten best books on the Civil War, I blanched and took a pass. There are far too many really fine ones, and too many that I still haven’t read, for me to presume to make up that kind of list. But I do welcome the chance at least to recommend some of the really excellent books on the subject. A few of these are newly published while others have been in print for quite a while.

The best (okay, in this case I will crawl out on that limb) one-volume treatment of the war remains James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988). It’s extremely well-informed, its judgments are sage, and it’s clearly and smoothly written. It’s a masterpiece. If you’re going to read only one book on the subject, read this one.

No aspect of the subject receives as much attention (by far) as the war’s military history. A couple of books are especially useful to anyone seeking a general grasp of that story. In Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat (The Free Press, 1992), Archer Jones uses key battles to illustrate some of the principal strategic and tactical principles that shaped the war’s conduct. Richard M. McMurry’s Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) provides eye-opening answers to a question that jumps out at any student of the Civil War: Why did Confederate armies do so well in the war’s eastern theater and so badly in the western one? J. Tracy Power, meanwhile, offers a deeply researched and illuminating account of life in Robert E. Lee’s army during the Confederacy’s final year in Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). And in a collection of essays entitled Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac (Mariner Books, 2000), Stephen W. Sears brings wisdom, enormous erudition, and considerable writing skill to bear on a series of the war’s key military episodes and colorful figures. (My favorite is his rehabilitation of “Fighting Joe” Hooker.)

David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001) presents a masterful account of the way in which Americans remembered (and chose to forget about) the bond between the Civil War and African-American slavery during the first half-century after Appomattox. Historians have explored that linkage with great energy and effectiveness during the last forty years. The results include James L. Roark’s revealing portrait of how slave-owners reacted to slavery’s destruction: Masters without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (W. W. Norton, 1977). The breakdown of slavery under the blows of war – and of the slaves themselves – can be followed in a dramatic documentary collection entitled Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War, edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven V. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland (The New Press, 1992). And the late Armstead L. Robinson, with whom I went to graduate school, argued that slavery itself was the chief cause of the Confederacy’s defeat in his posthumously published Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise Of Slavery And the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (University Press of Virginia, 2004).

Robinson’s subject – the reasons for the Union’s victory – has once again become the focus of a lively and thought-provoking debate among professional historians, with some emphasizing the Confederacy’s internal weaknesses (including but not limited to slavery) while others focus on what occurred on the battlefield. A good, readable introduction to that debate is Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Why the Confederacy Lost (Oxford University Press, 1992). Drew Gilpin Faust’s lively study of the war’s impact on women of the planter class spotlights that group’s waning loyalty to the Confederate cause: Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Random House, 1996). Gary W. Gallagher’s The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat (Harvard University Press, 1997) emphasizes the Confederacy’s success in maintaining its citizens’ loyalty down to the wire. William W. Freehling replies to Gallagher and others in a short but spirited volume entitled The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2001).

I could very easily triple this list from the baker’s dozen I’ve given here and not come close to running out of excellent recommendations. And tomorrow morning I imagine that I will kick myself for not doing just that. Oh, well…

Bruce Levine is the author, most recently, of Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Arm and Free Slaves during the Civil War, just published by Oxford. One of his previous books, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (Hill & Wang, 2005) has just been released in a revised edition.

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Recent Comments

  1. Seth

    This is great–some of these are definitely going on my “books to read” list. Will this “best books” become a running series? I hope so.

  2. Matthew Sollars

    Thanks! We do indeed plan to do more “best books” lists. Tell us what you’d like to see and we’ll try to write them for you.

  3. James Lechner

    Sir,

    My only issue is with the now almost standard nomination of J McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” as the singular best work. Although for lack of a substitute, I cannot disagree with this choice, it must be highlighted that Dr McPherson is anti Southern in his bias. He continually stresses slavery as the central issue of the war and proclaims that defense of this institution was the primary motivation for southerners. He treats Southern policy, perspectives and attitudes in a very disparaging way. While broad based and extremely well written, this book is not a balanced history or completely accurate portrayal.

  4. Bob Rogers

    Thanks for the list and the comments. Helped me with my reading list.

  5. Hal Rogers

    Must disagree with Mr. Lechner regarding McPherson’s Northern (or anti-Southern) bias. Although not completely finished with the book, I find it very even toned even with the author’s family history of service to the North.

    I would imagine it’s as balanced as a Civil War historian could be.

  6. James Lechner

    As Mr Rogers will see upon completion of the book, McPherson’s demonstration of his anti Southern bias comes at the end of the work. That why its important to read all the way to the summary, not just the narrative, when reading history. McPhersons conclusions are the most flawed aspect of his professional analysis. I will also add that with the exception of the concluding chapters of the book, this is one of his more mild anti southern works. Read his other works and especially listen to his candid radio and television interviews and the true anti southern “colors” come out. Also important in reading history is to not only read the complete work but to use other sources. He is entitled to his opinions but lets not parade northern propoganda as history.

  7. James Lechner

    Mr Rogers will find the anti Southern bias in the summarizing chapters when he completes the book. McPherson is admittedly anti southern if you read his other works and listen to interviews. Always important to read the summary in a historical work and just as important to use other sources.

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