If your idea of good reading involves stories about the Union and the Confederacy, then you’ll want to add these page-turners to your bookshelf or Kindle. We’ve partnered with the hit PBS show Mercy Street to curate a list of the most interesting reads on the Civil War. Whether you prefer fiction, nonfiction, female heroines, or descriptions of historic battles, history lovers and bibliophiles alike will find something to love on this list.
The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle by Margaret S. Creighton
Much is made of the elite men who fought and died in the war, but there aren’t as many comparable stories about minorities — namely women, immigrants, and African-Americans — whose lives were upended by the conflict. The Colors of Courage recounts the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of these groups, weaving together letters, diaries, and newspapers to create a compelling historical nonfiction narrative.
Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout
The author, Yale professor Harry S. Stout, uses “the just war theory” — or the idea that why wars are fought can be justified through historical or theoretical examination — to evaluate the ethical and moral drivers of both the Union and the Confederacy. By examining periodicals, editorials, sermons, and other historical documents, Stout illustrates how each side formed an ideology that justified its conduct and reasoning for war, even as the conflict grew bloodier and more gruesome.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
No Civil War reading list is complete without James McPherson’s seminal work. In its 952 pages, you’ll find a full-bodied history of the Civil War, recounting the key events that led to the historic conflict and the political and military strategies, as well as notable figures and memorable battles that defined the war. What makes this unique book a must-read is McPherson’s distinct narrative, which truly brings historical personas and events to life.
The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
This 2005 novel by Robert Hicks is based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, a Confederate woman who dedicated herself to honoring Civil War soldiers in death by caring for the graves of 1,481 of them buried at Carnton Plantation —also her backyard. In 1894, McGavock is approached by an elderly soldier — and an important figure from her past — who asks if Carnton Plantation can one day be his final resting place. The Widow of the South is a story about more than just the war itself; it’s also a tale of love, honor, and compassion.
The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara
Part of a trilogy, this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Michael Shaara about the Battle of Gettysburg uses the perspectives of five main characters to give readers insight into the moral underpinnings — and consequences — of the war. The Killer Angels is considered by many the preeminent fictional work on the Battle of Gettysburg. If your reading list is getting too long, you can always rent the four-hour film Gettysburg, which is based on the novel.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Taking place in the antebellum South, Gone With the Wind is recognized as the Great American Novel, despite criticism that it poorly represents and even romanticizes slavery. The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, first published in 1936, focuses on the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, Scarlett O’Hara, and details her coming of age during a time when the nation also experienced its own growing pains. In 1939, David O. Selznick made this renowned written work into one of the most popular movies ever made. In it, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable star as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, and their performances helped cement the two literary figures as perhaps the most famous star-crossed lovers since Romeo and Juliet.
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
To capture how modern-day Americans view the Civil War, war correspondent Tony Horwitz traverses the South to find out why some Americans idealize the war and others view it as a stain on our history. From battle reenactments to arguments over the Confederate flag, Horwitz’s 1998 book is still relevant and brings to light many of the issues that drove the war and that still, to some, are left unsettled today.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Seven Years Concealed by Linda Brent
In what’s likely the most widely read historical work about the female slave experience, Harriet Ann Jacobs (under the pseudonym Linda Brent) unflinchingly details her personal story, sharing accounts of sexual abuse and the indignity of slavery. The book, first published in 1861, traces Jacobs’ journey from a slave in North Carolina to the seven years she spent in hiding and her eventual escape to New York. Though there’s debate about whether Incidents is fictional, it has become a staple on school reading lists for its depiction of slavery’s cruelties from a female perspective.
Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction by James Downs
The book’s title literally describes what happened after slaves achieved emancipation — newly freed people became ill with diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever. Using records from the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the first government-run health care system, historian James Downs details how the dismantling of slavery created an unintended public health crisis. Sick From Freedom illustrates the often untold cost of liberation for many African-Americans and that this turning point in our nation’s history left many victims in its wake long after the war was over.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott
New York Times best-selling author Karen Abbott shares the story of how four unlikely women — an abolitionist, a farm girl, a widow, and a socialite — became spies during the Civil War. The women each used different undercover tactics, whether it was seduction or assuming the identity of a man, to share intelligence with the Confederacy or the Union. Frank Stringfellow, known as the most dangerous man in the Confederacy, was perhaps the most famous spy during this period, but Abbott’s work shows he wasn’t the only double agent.
Can’t get enough? Indulge in more Civil War drama by tuning in to season two of Mercy Street on PBS, starting January 22.