I prepared a reading list of Civil War volumes to hand out to an Olean High School junior year American history class as part of a Civil War presentation on Jan. 15, 2013. The list is short and sweet and my basic premise was that, for the most part, none of the students had read much, if anything, about the Civil War. My intention was to suggest some books that would be scholarly but entertaining and informative at the same time. Also the list had to fit on one page. This is the list I came up with. My feeling is that if any of the students read even one of these volumes they will probably be drawn to read others as well.
- Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Civil War, which includes The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat, is a very dramatic and beautifully written set. It’s accurate history but it reads with the verve of a novel. A pretty long novel though.
- Bruce Catton also wrote a terrific little book entitled U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. It’s one of my absolute favorite Civil War books. And it’s short!
- There are two excellent one volume biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None and/or Benjamin P. Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln. Another really neat little book is this same Benjamin P. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem.
- The best single volume account of the overall Civil War—it’s pretty long and quite detailed but extremely worthwhile—is James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.
- There are all sorts of truly fascinating first person accounts of being a soldier in the Civil War. These books are America’s Victorian literature. We don’t have a Dickens, a Trollope, a Thackery, an Eliott…but we do have these. And they’re not only thrilling and entertaining but they’re also true. There are dozens of these but two of the best are: War Years with JEB Stuart by W.W. Blackford and I Rode With Stonewall by Henry Kyd Douglas.
- The Blue and the Gray, edited by Henry Steele Commager, is a chronologically arranged collection of excerpts from contemporary accounts of the Civil War. The entries are usually short. They’re like intellectual snacks. But the selections were chosen because they gave the illuminating sense of “being there.”
- If you’re feeling really ambitious, there’s a fabulous set of volumes by Carl Sandburg (he’s the poet)—2 volumes entitled The Prairie Years, and 4 volumes entitled The War Years. Together they constitute a superlative biography of Lincoln and the American cultural and political environment in which he lived and governed. Make yourself a promise to read these volumes some time in your life.
- Finally there is an ongoing series The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It, which will consist of four volumes published by Library of America. McElfresh Map Company prepared the endpaper maps for each volume.