Even though the Civil War was more 155 years ago, it’s something that still very much a part of the fabric of American society. And this is true in ways both large and small, and both good and bad ways. Unfortunately, far too many Americans realize the far-reaching effects of this war, so we’ve decided to list some of the books that we think will help all of our readers realize just how it was a turning point in the history of the country. To that effect, we’ve found the best Civil War books that everyone interested in this chapter of American history is going to want to read.

Quick Summary of the Best Civil War Books

Note: We may earn a small commission when you buy through links on our site. Learn more

Editor’s Choice: Civil War: A Narrative By Shelby Foote

The Civil War is such a sprawling epic of American history, it’s hard to imagine a single book capturing all but the broadest of strokes. Fortunately, this book collection doesn’t try to encapsulate the entire war in one book but instead uses three books to carve out its narrative. This is a book that took the author, Shelby Foote, a decade to write and it shows. The first book handles Fort Sumter to Perryville; the second book handles Fredericksburg to Meridian; and the final book in this trilogy handles from Red River To Appomattox.

This is a book that uses Shelby Foote’s narrative power to give voice to this great American epic. For those readers of ours who aren’t familiar with Foote’s work, it should probably be mentioned that he is best known as the commentator on Ken Burn’s PBS Civil War Series. He uses that same strong voice to give this book the narrative that it needs to fully tell the story of the war. This book is not just a history book, but it’s an important part of literature that anyone serious about this segment of American history is going to want to read.

The first volume covers the roots of the war to the Battle Of Perryville that occurred on October 8, 1862. This volume lists everything from Bull Run to the Second Bull Run Of Antietam. It also covers the fall of Perryville in 1862. The second book begins with the Battle of Fredericksburg and goes to the attempted attempts at taking Richmond. The third volume begins with the Red River Campaign, covers Sherman’s March To The Sea. It culminates with the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox.

What truly makes this an exceptional book on the war, however, is that it covers not just the broad strokes of the battles, but it also covers some of the little details that other history books miss. It’s for that reason we have no problems recommending this book to any history buff or Civil War fan.

What we liked about it
  • This is one of the most comprehensive Civil War books available.

Also Recommended: The Civil War: A Visual History

This book was produced by the Smithsonian Institute and is was published in 2011. It was supposed to be material that could be used as a companion piece to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. It’s a book that’s filled to the brim with some of the most exciting and visually stunning material ever to grace a history book. Although some of the photographs that can be found in it are ones that are widely circulated, several other ones just aren’t widely available to the general public.

This book just doesn’t have historic photographs in it, however. It also has portraits, maps, flags of both the Union and the Confederacy, and drawings of the weapons of war. This is a sleek and impressive coffee table book that will look good when displayed for friends and family. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than some of the other Civil War books that might be available, but this one is so unique, we think that everyone should have a copy of it in their collection.

Chapter one is entitled An Imperfect Union and it covers the period from 1815 to 1860. The second chapter has entitled the Secession Triggers War and that covers the year 1861. The next chapter starts the following year and is entitled Clash Of Armies. Chapters four and five handle 1863 through 1864. And chapter six handles the year 1865 and the collapse of the confederacy. And finally, chapter seven handles the legacies of the war by covering the years 1865 through 1877.

Because the seven chapters of this book are arranged chronologically, the reader is taken on a journey from an overview of slavery through the many battles of the conflict and on to Reconstruction and the legacy of the war on American life. This is a perspective that we feel Civil War buffs and history lovers are going to enjoy thoroughly.

What we liked about it
  • This is an excellent visual history of the Civil War.

Also Consider: The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

Before we start discussing what is in this book, it’s probably prudent to discuss the historian that wrote this book, James M. McPherson. McPherson is a historian that has specialized in the Civil War and has written many published works on the subject including Battle Cry Of Freedom, Abraham Lincoln & The Second American Revolution, War On The Waters, The Negro’s Civil War, Why The Confederacy Lost, Drawn With The Sword, and Fields of Fury. Although we feel that all of those titles are good, we feel that this one is probably his best work.

Some of the chapters that the reader can expect to find in this book include: Why The Civil War Still Matters; Mexico, California, and the Coming of the Civil War; A Just War?; American Navies & British Neutrality During The Civil War; The Rewards of Risk-Taking: Two Civil War Admirals; Lincoln, Slavery, and Freedom; Lincoln’s Legacy Of Our Time; and War And Peace in the Post Civil War South. Although this book isn’t as complete or as thorough as some of the other Civil War books on our list, it is still a great book.

This book was published in 2017 and is 232 pages long. Long enough to give the reader a good basic understanding of some of the minutia of the war, but not long enough to get into some of the more complex problems of the era. It’s a book that’s received praise from the LA Times Book Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and The Wall Street Journal. And let us add to these positive reviews, that this is indeed a great book worth checking out.

What we liked about it
  • This is a well-written history of the war.
  • It’s written by someone who is well versed in the entire history of the war.

A Reader’s Guide To The Civil War

Now that we’ve recommended what we feel are the best Civil War books, we would like all of our readers to follow along with us a little bit longer so that we can explore some of the other books on the subject that we think are important to read. With that being said, let’s begin our guide with a brief overview of the Civil War before we turn our attention to some of the books that do the best job of covering and analyzing it. 

A Brief History Of The Civil War

After decades upon decades of tensions between northern and southern states in the U.S over slavery, everything eventually came to a head in 1861. The election of Abraham Lincoln and the desire to protect slavery in all of its forms led to seven states to secede from the Union and form the Confederate States of America. 

The Civil War would rage on until 1865 when the Confederacy was defeated by the Union and surrendered. This war was not only the deadliest war to ever be fought on American soil, but it was also the most expensive one. Throughout the war, over 620,000 soldiers were killed and millions more were injured, and that’s not even mentioning the fact that by the end of the war, the South was left pretty much in ruin. 

Civil War Books Worth Considering

Okay, as promised, we’re now going to move onto some of the best Civil War books currently available. We’re going to group these books into several different categories that include General Histories, Books On Abraham Lincoln, Books That Cover Civil War Battles, and Biographies. Okay, now that we all know our terms let’s get started. 

General Histories

Since we’ve already covered The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote and The War That Forged A Nation by James M. McPherson, but that still leaves quite a few books for us to add to this section. Below are some of the General History books that we recommend.

  • Battle Cry Of Freedom By James M. McPherson
  • For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War By James M. McPherson
  • The Impending Crisis By David M. Potter
  • Upon The Altar Of The Nation By Harry S. Stout
  • Ordeal Of The Union By Allan Nevins
  • The War For The Union By Allan Nevins
  • The Emergence Of Lincoln By Allan Nevins
  • The Centennial History Of The Civil War: 1861-1865 by Bruce Cotton

Books On Abraham Lincoln

It’s almost an impossibility to cover every single biography of Abraham Lincoln because so many of them have been done over the years. However, what we can do is to give our readers some of our favorites. And some of our favorite books on Lincoln include the following titles.

  • Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln By Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • A. Lincoln: A Biography By Ronald C. White
  • Lincoln By David Herbert Donald
  • Lincoln By David Donald

Books That Cover Civil War Battles

The next grouping of Civil War books is the ones that cover battles. This war had some of the bloodiest and interesting battles of any war. The following books are books that cover some of these battles from the Battle Of Antietam to the Battle Of Champion Hill.

  • Smithsonian’s Great Battles & Battlefields Of The Civil War by Jay Wertz & Edwin C. Bearss
  • The Colors Of Courage By Margaret Creighton 
  • Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! By George C. Rable

Civil War Biographies

Okay, let’s see. We’ve done general histories of the war, books on Abraham Lincoln, and books on the battles of the Civil War. Hmm, what’s left? Oh, we can’t do a guide on the books of the Civil War without taking a few moments and talking about some of the great biographies that have been published over the years. Let’s take a quick look at them before we conclude our guide. Below are the Civil War Biographies that we really like.

  • The Scourge of War: The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman By Brian Holden Reid
  • The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865 By Janet Elizabeth Croon
  • Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War By Charles Bracelen Flood
  • Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson By S.C. Gwynne

Other Civil War Books To Consider

We’re almost done, so just bear with us. Before we concluded this guide we wanted to list a few other Civil War books that are worth considering. Let’s take a quick look at them. 

  • The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home By Reid Mitchell
  • A Great Civil War: A Military & Political History 1861-1865 By Russell F. Weigley
  • The Hard Hand Of War: Union Military Policy Towards Southern Civilians By Mark Grimsley