The House Divides: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC, and the beginning of the Civil War. And there's probably no more poignant evocation of the war than from the opening of the Ken Burns series The Civil War:
The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida coast. More than 3 million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men, 2 percent of the population, died in it.
American homes became headquarters, American churches and schoolhouses sheltered the dying, and huge foraging armies swept across American farms and burned American towns. Americans slaughtered one another wholesale, right here in America in their own cornfields and peach orchards, along familiar roads and by waters with old American names.
According to biographer Edward Ball, "something like 65,000 books have been published on the war, more than one a day since it ended." (On Amazon, you can find over 15,000 history books on the subject alone). It's an endlessly fascinating subject, too, whether you measure interest by the number of books, movies, and documentaries made about the war, or the number of visitors that show up to Civil War re-enactments and living history displays around the country.
I was six years old when The Civil War premiered on PBS, so I didn't quite appreciate it the first time around. But my family would watch it every year around the holidays (along with It's A Wonderful Life), and over time, I grew to understand it a lot more. I started checking out more Civil War books on the library, and would ask for them on my birthday.
Initially, books with battlefield maps were my favorite--William C. Davis's gorgeous The Battlefields of the Civil War is still one of my prized possessions, and one restless summer I motored through most of the silver-jacketed, 28-volume Time Life series. But over time, I started reading more and more ambitious books: not just about battles and strategies, but also about the men who fought in the war, and the people who stayed behind to experience the war from a distance.
With so many books out there, it's impossible to put together a "Best Civil War Books" list that's anything but subjective. But here are five of my favorite books about one of the most cataclysmic, defining events in our nation's history:
1. The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
It's impossible to describe how well historian James McPherson condenses all of the political, economic, and military history of the war into one (albeit pretty large) volume. It's brisk without losing focus, accessible but detailed, and the gold standard for any single book on the war.
2. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
There are a lot of war memoirs out there (though none by Robert E. Lee), and all of them are worth a read. But for me, Grant's memoir stands out just because he was the exact opposite of most of his predecessors: understated, methodical, and someone who saw the war from a strategic point of view. He was one of the first people to realize the new and terrible era of warfare that was just dawning.
3. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
A novel about the battle of Gettysburg, it follows Confederate General James Longstreet, who ordered Pickett's Charge, and Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who defended Little Round Top. It's not at all means a chest-thumping, guts-and-glory kind of book about fighting. Instead, it gives you a sense of the great tragedies of the war--the doomed assaults, the outdated tactics, and the mindlessness of violence--as well as the sense of duty, honor, and compassion (of all things!) that motivated its combatants. The Killer Angels also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975.
4. The Civil War: A Visual History by DK Publishing
Things are sometimes more powerful than words, and in that sense this book can in some ways connect you to the realities of war more closely than even the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. This book contains over 150 photographs of artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution.
5. The Battlefields of the Civil War by William C. Davis
This book is for military history buffs: it takes you through each moment in the decisive battles of the war, from First Bull Run/Manassas to the Battle of the Wilderness, along with full-color maps.
Browse for more Civil War books, both fiction and non-fiction, on Amazon.com.