Recommended Reading: American Civil War, American Revolution, and Abraham Lincoln

by Gordon Leidner of Great American History

I've been an avid student of the Civil War, American Revolution, and Abraham Lincoln for over 30 years, and have listed below several of the books I found to be particularly worth reading. They are categorized according to specific subject matter: Civil War (general interest), Lincoln, Leaders, and Fiction.

If you're considering these as recommendations for students, most of these books are are for Ninth Grade or above. To see a list of good books for younger readers, go to our favorite link Lesson Plan of the Civil War.

General Civil War:

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. If you want a single volume book that covers the political and economic events that led up to the war, as well as the same subjects during the war itself, you can't get any better than this book. McPherson also discusses the major battles and the political and military leaders. Whereas most books will give you a narrow-focused, highly biased account of the era, McPherson does not. This is a well-researched study, and ably written.

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The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Everyone has seen Shelby Foote on TV by now, either in the PBS "Civil War" series or on one of A&E's programs. He's usually described as a "writer" rather than historian, but believe me--he's both. Par excellence. The only critical thing I can say about this mammoth 3-volume, 2500 page work is that it's a shame it's a narrative, rather than a history book with footnotes. Although there is little worry about Foote having his facts mixed up, it would be awful nice if the reader could go to the source of the anecdote for further reading. No matter. Just find an easy chair and relax. Enjoy history at its best.

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The Civil War by Bruce Catton. Although Catton frequently writes about the war from the North's viewpoint, I do not agree with those that say he presents a biased view. He criticizes and praises both sides, as he sees fit. Like Shelby Foote, he is both an excellent writer and a thorough historian. Typically just about anything Catton writes reads as easily as good fiction. This book is no exception, but one must realize the limitations of trying to tell a story of the mammoth proportions the Civil War is in only 372 pages--many of which are jammed with photographs and maps! Like Foote's work, this is a narrative also, but Catton puts together an accurate story.

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Abraham Lincoln: Quotes, Quips, and Speeches by Gordon Leidner. GAH's author's book of Lincoln quotations (usually 2 or 3 sentences long) and quotations about Lincoln by people that knew him. They are organized according to topics such as Leadership, Honesty, Faith, Character, and Hope. This is an excellent source of Lincoln quotes, each one annotated so you know exactly where they come from. Also has nice Lincoln photos. Hardbound.

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Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears. Sears presents a fascinating account of one of the world's most-studied battles. Superbly researched and ably written, Sears presents the Chancellorsville campaign through the eyes of its participants, frequently providing superior insight into "why" the military leaders did what they did. Sears posits that the reason Hooker and the Army of the Potomac failed to defeat Lee was more of a function of breakdown in telegraph communications and the failure of one or two Corps commanders, rather than exclusively the result of Hooker's indecisiveness at a critical moment.

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Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 by James Abrahamson. Abrahamson presents a succinct, factual account the men and issues that brought about the American Civil War. He explores the personalities and plans of fireaters like Robert Rhett and William Yancey of the South, and politicians such as Steven A. Douglas and abolitionists such as Salmon P. Chase of the North. The reader will gain a clearer understanding of the reason the North and South went to war in 1861. Well researched and clearly written, appropriate for students of all ages.

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The American Revolution:

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick. This is the way history should be written. Bobrick's excellent book gives the whole story of the American Revolution, from its origins through the war and the writing of the US Constitution. He weaves the words of the participants throughout the narrative, making a very readable account that is difficult to put down. Well researched, thoroughly annotated, and great bibliography.

Order Bobrick's Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster America Collection) > Now


Abraham Lincoln by Benjamin Thomas. Long considered the authoritative single volume study of Lincoln, Thomas' book has stood the test of time--first published in 1952. Well written, well-researched.

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With Malice Toward None by Stephen B. Oates. This is a slightly longer work than Thomas's, but it is also a warmer, more in-depth one that gives you a better understanding of the magnificent heart of Lincoln's. Very enjoyable reading.

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Lincoln: On God and Country by Gordon Leidner. This book provides a short, 30 page biography of Abraham Lincoln, along with a number of excerpts from some of his better known communications on the subjects of his faith, government, freedom, humor, and others. The author also provides short editorial commentary for each quotation, and addresses the question of whether or not Lincoln was a Christian. In his introduction to the book, Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame writes: "The speeches and letters gathered here offer a revealing portrait of Lincoln in both phases of his remarkable career. We hear the purple prose, the satirical wit, and the occasional demagoguery of the 1830s and 1840s and the surpassing eloquence of the 1850s and 1860s."

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R. E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman. This is the authoritative work on Lee. This book, along with Lee's Lieutenants by the same author, will provide the reader with an in-depth understanding of Southern leadersip in the eastern theatre. Freeman was the quintessential historian. Exhaustive research and extensive footnotes make these books essential if you want to understand why the Army of Northern Virginia dominated the North's Army of Potomac for over 2 years. Although Freeman's writing style is not as entertaining as a Foote or a Catton, his thoroughness is something to enjoy. Order Freeman's R.E. Lee Now

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by U. S. Grant. Unlike most of the memoirs of Civil War generals, this is highly readable, interesting work. Although it cannot be said that Grant had "no axe to grind," he put together a very informative account of the war, with candid analysis of his own actions, as well as of other officers. Grant was a failure at virtually every job he had, except Civil War leader.

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Historical Fiction:

Freedom by William Safire. Safire was a former speech writer for Richard Nixon. In this book, Safire presents excellent historical fiction on the Lincoln administration for the first two and a half years of the war. Well researched (Safire documents his sources in an exhaustive set of footnotes--much like a good history book) and of course well written, Freedom gives the reader the feeling "you are there" with Lincoln. Although he undoubtedly gives Anna Carol more credit than deserved for the North's success, he generally presents an accurate account of events, with appropriate embellishment necessary to good historical fiction.

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The Killer Angels by Michael Shahara. This is the book that the movie "Gettysburg" was based on. Although very accurate and well written, it is sometimes hard to follow because of the way the author jumps back and forth between multiple main characters. Nevertheless, this book presents an excellent account of the battle of Gettysburg.

Shahara's The Killer Angels Now

Arundel by Kenneth Roberts. This one, although not on the Civil War era, ranks as one of my top all-time favorite historical fictions. This deals with the Revolutionary War era, and is centered around a young man from Maine and his journey with General Benedict Arnold (then loyal to the U.S.). Arnold led a courageous expedition of American soldiers in an effort to travel through the Maine wilderness in order to take the city of Quebec. This is an excellent story of life in colonial America, Indians, subtle romance,and courage. Roberts researched his subject thoroughly, and in my opinion is one of America's greatest writers. Roberts also wrote Northwest Passage,Rabble in Arms, and Oliver Wiswell. Each of these books had ought to be mandatory reading for American history.

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Answers to GAH's Beginner's Quiz from the Civil War Quizzes page

1. 1861 & 1865

2. Confederate States of America

3. Cotton

4. Abraham Lincoln

5. Jefferson Davis

6. By the South. At Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina

7. First Manassas (also called First Bull Run); in Virginia

8. Declared a Naval Blockade of all southern ports

9. USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (also called Merrimack)

10. Battle of Antietam (also called Sharpsburg)

11. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

12. William Tecumseh Sherman

13. Gettysburg

14. Julia Ward Howe

15. Harriet Tubman

16. Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland

17. U.S. Grant (North) and Robert E. Lee (South)

18. President Lincoln was assassinated

19. John Wilkes Booth

20. (d) 620,000


Answers to GAH Research Quiz

1.A A: March 1857. The Dred Scott decision severely limited the rights of a slave, or any African-American, to pursue any legal recourse in the US Court system.

1.B A: May 1854. Kansas-Nebraska proposed the idea of Popular Sovereignty, overriding the Missouri Compromise, and opened the door for slavery to be introduced into ANY new US territory.

2. A: Four major parties--Republican, Northern (Douglas) Democratic, Southern (Breckenridge) Democratic, and Constitutional Union

3. A: Economic Development , Slavery, States Rights

4. A: Slavery, whose main product for export was cotton. Great Britain and the New England states were the major importers.

5. A: Called for 75,000 volunteers. Very popular--many thousands of volunteers were turned away because the quota was exceeded.

6. A: The original 7 Confederate states were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas. They were joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

7. A: Lincoln named for State: William H. Seward; War: Simon Cameron; Treasury: Salmon P. Chase. Davis named for State: Robert Toombs; War: Leroy Walker; Treasury: Christopher G. Memminger

8. A: The Trent affair. Allowed the Confederate envoys to go free and travel to England.

9. A: T. J. Jackson and James Longstreet

10. A: Frederick Douglas and John Brown

11. A: The majority of northern people were motivated by the South's attempt to break up the Union, not the issue of slavery. Lincoln correctly assumed that an immediate effort to make the war one against slavery would have divided the North rather than united it. (Even one and a half years later, when it was finally announced that slaves were to be freed, there was a surprising amount of resentment in the North).

12. A: John Ericson

13. A: It removed the Confederacy's last major stronghold on the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in two and allowing US shipping full use of the Mississippi. Gettysburg was occurring at the same time.

14. A: Southern leader--Robert E. Lee; Northern leader--Joseph Hooker. Stonewall Jackson was shot, and would later die during recuperation.

15. A: Northern--23,000 in killed, wounded, missing. Southern--28,000 in killed, wounded, missing.

16. A: "...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

17. A: The 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States and its territories. The 13th Amendment was originally proposed (in February, 1861) for purposes of guaranteeing the continuation of slavery in the southern states, precluding any possibility of interference by the federal government. It successfully passed both houses and would have been sent to the states for ratification, but the war halted the process.

18. A: The Alabama was a commerce raider. It captured or sank over 60 Union merchant ships during the Civil War, before being sunk by the USS Kearsarge.

19. A: He was a native American Colonel in the Confederate army, leader of a regiment of pro-southern Cherokees.

20. A: Frederick Douglas. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave"