Ta-Nehisi Coates recently shared Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War. It’s a pretty good list. Here’s mine, for whatever it’s worth.
- Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson. This was Coates’ first suggestion, too, and for good reason. If you’re looking for a single volume that encapsulates the war–its causes, its course, and its aftermath–you couldn’t do better than this one.
- The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank, by Bell Wiley. This is what it was actually like to be a soldier in the American Civil War. You can practically smell the gunpowder when you open this one.
- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, by David Blight. Technically, this isn’t a book about the Civil War. It’s a book about how we remember the Civil War. Blight shows how the country (at least the white part of the country) went about setting aside its differences and moving past the trauma of the war. More importantly, he shows the price we paid for editing our shared story with such a heavy hand.
- Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 – 1877, by Eric Foner. Just as Battle Cry is the best single volume on the war, Reconstruction is the best single volume on the Reconstruction era. Even more than the war itself, this period has been misconstrued and, consequently, misunderstood.
- For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James McPherson. For a long time, Civil War historians tended to focus on the big picture when discussing the causes of the war. They explored the causes at a societal level or at the level of elite politicians. Overwhelmingly, however, the war was fought by individual men who volunteered to enlist and re-enlist. Why they did that is at least as important as the big, abstract socio-political causes of the war.
Coates also recommends Grant, by Ron Chernow. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s not even the best Grant biography written recently. For that, look to American Ulysses by Ronald White, Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, or Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War by Charles Flood. At this point, every American ought to know that Grant was a genuine civil rights hero.
Coates also makes a case for The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. I couldn’t agree with him more, except to recommend pairing it with Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois.