Weekly Spotlight On…Reading the Civil War

On Tuesday, October 2nd at 7pm, the River Forest Public Library will be exploring the Civil War with historian Robert Girardi in the Roosevelt Middle School auditorium.  The years 2011-2015 mark the Sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War.  Girardi will be exploring, among other things, the nature of the Civil War and why it is something that still fascinates us 150 years later.  To get into the Civil War mindset, so to speak, I though it would be fun to create a list of fantastic fiction and nonfiction books that focus on the Civil War.  Happy reading!

Civil War Fiction Books

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

“The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others.

The March by E.L. Doctorow

In 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his sixty thousand troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces and lived off the land, pillaging the Southern plantations…Only a master novelist could so powerfully and compassionately render the lives of those who marched.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

Banks takes on one of American history’s most misunderstood figures, John Brown, whose October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, crossed the line from civil protest to armed struggle, prefiguring the greatest conflagration in this country’s history. Narrated by the enigmatic abolitionist’s son Owen, the novel dazzlingly re-creates the fractured political and social landscape of pre-Civil War America.

Jacob’s Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War by Donald McCaig

“A large, ambitious, carefully researched novel tracing the impact of the Civil War on a Virginia slave-owning family, their neighbors, and their slaves.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

The movie does not do this beautifully written love story justice.  Based on local history and family stories passed down by the author’s great-great-grandfather, Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded soldier Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war and back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. Inman’s odyssey through the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby.

The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

“Ninety-nine year old Lucille Marsden, confined to a charity nursing home in North Carolina, the story of her marriage to “Captain” Will Marsden, ostensibly the Civil War’s last survivor, whom she married when she was 15 and he was more than triple her age. She also tells about her husband’s experiences in the war and after, the burning of her mother-in-law’s plantation by Sherman’s men, and the abduction from Africa of a former Marsden slave, midwife to Lucy’s nine children as well as her best friend.” (Library Journal)

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Considered to be one of the first classic Civil War novels, if you missed this one in school, pick it up now.  Young Henry Fleming had always dreamed of performing heroic deeds in battle. But as a raw recruit in the American Civil War, Henry experiences both fear and self-doubt. Will war make him a coward or a hero?

All Other Nights by Dara Horn

“A Civil War spy page-turner meets an exploration of race and religion in 19th-century America. Jacob Rappaport, the 19-year-old scion of a wealthy Jewish import-export family, flees home and enlists in the Union army to avoid an arranged marriage. When his superiors discover his unique connections, he is sent on espionage missions that reveal an American Jewish population divided by the Mason-Dixon line, but united by business, religious and family ties.” (Publisher’s Weekly)

The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright

“Wright’s tale of the growth and travels of Liberty Fish, son of passionate upstate New York abolitionists but drawn to his slaveholding extended family, is an unusually captivating modernist novel set during the Civil War.” (Book List)

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

“A coming-of-age story whose grim background is the Civil War,  this work follows 14-year-old  Robey Childs on his quest to locate his father, a soldier in  that war. His mother’s premonition sets him on the journey, with  no money, no clear direction, and just a worn-out horse to ride.” (Library Journal)

Civil War Nonfiction

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea by Noah Trudeau

Award-winning Civil War historian Noah Andre Trudeau has written a gripping, definitive new account that will stand as the last word on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s epic march—a targeted strategy aimed to break not only the Confederate army but an entire society as well.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

“This is not a book about the Civil War; rather, it’s a book about how Americans — and particularly Southerners — think about the war today and how the war’s legacies continue to shape our lives.” (Salon.com) I would also recommend Horwitz’s book about John Brown’s Raid: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Faust

An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson

“For many people, this is their favorite Civil War book. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989 for this book, James M. McPherson set out to tell the story of the Civil War in a single volume by writing a gripping narrative that relied on eyewitness accounts of the war and on the most recent scholarship in the field of Civil War studies. He achieved his goal admirably and with great flourish.” (Salon.com)

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight

David W. Blight’s book, published in 2001, explores how the past is connected to the present by looking at the ways in which Americans have remembered the Civil War.

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen Sears

“On Sept. 17, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, clashed in Maryland with the Union Army of the Potomac, led by George B. McClellan, in what would turn out to be the single bloodiest day of the Civil War and in all of American history….Stephen W. Sears conveys all the human drama of the battle, skillfully shifting from generals to soldiers in the ranks to reconstruct the battle through the eyes of the men who fought it.” (Salon.com)

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

April 1865 was a month that could have unraveled the nation. Instead, it saved it. Here Jay Winik offers a brilliant new look at the Civil War’s final days that will forever change the way we see the war’s end and the nation’s new beginning. Uniquely set within the larger sweep of history, filled with rich profiles of outsize figures, fresh iconoclastic scholarship, and a gripping narrative, this is a masterful account of the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States.

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote

Considered to be one of the most definitive works of the Civil War, this large three volume set that covers (1) Fort Sumter to Perryville, (2) Fredericksburg to Meridian, and (3) Red River to Appomattox is known not only for its rich historical detail but also for its powerful prose narrative power.  While sitting down with these books is a committment, you will not be disappointed.

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey Ward

The complete text of the bestselling narrative history of the Civil War–based on the celebrated PBS television series. This illustrated edition interweaves the author’s narrative with the voices of the men and women who lived through that cataclysmic trail of our nationhood, from Abraham Lincoln to ordinary foot soldiers. Includes essays by distinguished historians of the era.

Civil War Wives:: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant by Carol Berkin

Here are the life stories of three women who connect us to our national past and provide windows onto a social and political landscape that is strangely familiar yet shockingly foreign. Berkin focuses on three “accidental heroes” who left behind sufficient records to allow their voices to be heard clearly and to allow us to see the world as they did. Though they held no political power themselves, all three had
access to power and unique perspectives on events of their time.


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