Top 9 American Civil War Books
Handsome Hubby and I just returned from one of the most exciting vacations we’ve ever had. No, it wasn’t Safariing through Africa in a Range Rover—which is pretty cool—but we did that last year. And it wasn’t strolling through the Forbidden City and climbing the Great Wall of China—although that is a surreal experience—but we did that several years ago. No, earlier this month HH and I stayed on our own continent and roamed the sacred hills and valleys of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg on the Ken Burns’s Most Hallowed Ground American Civil War Tour with Tauck to help mark the 150th anniversary of this war of brother against brother.
I thought that only Civil War nerds (like HH & me) would sign up for such a trip, but this was not the case. Although a couple of fellow travelers were history buffs, we mostly toured with other inquisitive souls who just wanted to learn something new, while visiting museums, battlefields, and staying in some gorgeous historical hotels such as The Mayflower in Washington DC and The Jefferson in Richmond, Virginia. This was an impulsive tour—we signed up just last month—so there was not a lot of time to bone-up on our history, and of course, read all our Civil War books. But as luck would have it, we’d already read many books—HH mostly nonfiction, me mostly fiction—that would prepare us and give us a good context for our trip. (Perhaps if I’d had more time, the Top 10 would’ve been complete…) As we made each stop, and discussed a variety of issues, I was reminded of these great books. And for you and our fellow travelers, I’d like to share some of my favorite recommended Civil War reads by sub-topic.
Although, technically, these stories all take place before the Civil War, they give the war a context. Of course, no matter what argument is used by which side, we all know that slavery was the primary cause of the war. Here are my three favorites on the topic of enslaved people.
1. Someone Knows my Name by Lawrence Hill (2007; 4.41 GR; 4.7 Am)
Originally published in Canada as The Book of Negroes, it was published in the US as Someone Knows My Name. It’s the story of Aminata Diallo, born free in a small village in 18th century Africa, who was torn from her family by slave traders. We follow her very human story as she marches to the sea for months, endures life on a slave ship for even longer, and ultimately is sold on the auction block in North America. We travel with her back and forth over several continents—and learn of British-sanctioned Free Black settlements in Canada as well as Africa (both news to me…) Beautiful language, round characters and a compelling story.
2. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (2010; 4.14 GR; 4.4 Am)
When Lavinia, a 9-year old Irish immigrant, is orphaned on a ship to America, she is thrust into the world of the Black servants in the kitchen house of a tobacco plantation. Belle, the plantation owner’s illegitimate daughter, runs the kitchen house and takes Lavinia under her wing. The story is told in the alternate voices of these two young women. But Lavinia finds herself in no man’s land—a servant, yet she’s white—and eventually her uncertain loyalties put her adopted family at risk. It has been described as “Gone with the Wind from Mammy’s point of view.” And I will agree that it puts a very different perspective on “life at Tara”…It also provides some great discussion opportunities for book clubs—with themes such as Family, Isolation, Depression, Secrets, and Divided Loyalties. The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail.
3. Song Yet Sung by James McBride
From the New York Times-bestselling author of The Color of Water comes a gripping story of a clairvoyant run-away slave, Liz Spocott—who trudges the swamps of the Underground Railroad in her struggle for freedom. Alongside Liz, we gradually learn of “The Code”—the signs, milestones, and customs that will get her safely to The North. Set in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay itself plays a main character, but you will not be disappointed by the other characters in this historical adventure. My neighborhood book club had one of our best discussions ever when we selected this book.
The Effects of the Civil War on the Home Front:
4. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997; 3.72 GR; 3.7 Am)
Cold Mountain is an extraordinary novel about a wounded soldier, Inman’s perilous journey back to his beloved, Ada, at the end of the Civil War. At once a magnificent love story and a harrowing account of one man’s long walk home, it has been compared to The Odyssey for obvious reasons, although I think he missed seeing any sirens. Frazier includes wonderfully rounded characters, heartbreakingly beautiful language, and realistic depictions of the ravages of war on a nation.
When you visit Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater, you will be reminded of the time Inman was wounded in this battle.
5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Meade (1936; 4.22 GR; 4.4 Am)
Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of love and war won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to give rise to two authorized sequels and one of the most popular and celebrated movies of all time. If you’ve only seen the movie, you must go back and read the book—Come on—you know the book is always better! After all, “tomorrow is another day”!
6. March, by Geraldine Brooks (2006; 3.68 GR; 4.0 Am)
As you were reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, did you ever wonder exactly what “the dad” was doing? So did Geraldine Brooks—so she made up this Pulitzer Prize-winning back story: He was a chaplain gone off to comfort those on the front lines of the Civil War. In Mr. March, Brooks has created a conflicted and deeply sensitive man, a father who is struggling to reconcile duty to his fellow man with duty to his family against the backdrop of one of the most grim periods in American history. As Frazier did above, Brooks manages to describe the horrors of the war in such lovely language that the reader is not sure if you’re crying because of the beauty that is the verse or the beast that is the war.
Civil War Politics:
This is the only Nonfiction selection on the list. (Most of the men have now quit reading this post and are eagerly downloading TOR onto their Kindles, Nooks, and iPads as the rest of you continue to patiently read about some other great books…) Kearns Goodwin uses her genius to shine a spotlight on Lincoln’s own in selecting his former political rivals as his cabinet members and closest advisors. Each former competitor joins to support Lincoln believing that he (and not that back-woods amateur) was the superior person in every way: breeding, education, intellect. But each slowly learns that this is not necessarily the case. A brilliant treatise on political maneuvering.
Civil War Battles:
Shaara’s novel takes place over the four-day battle that most historians mark as the turning point of the American Civil War. But instead of focusing on the action on the battle field, we go behind the scenes and experience the emotional turmoil in which the generals and colonels of the day were embroiled. This is a true masterpiece which you must read if you plan to visit the Gettysburg battlefield, itself. Of course, if you’ve just been there, this is good time to pick it up as well…
Civil War Medicine:
9. My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira (2010; 3.76 GR; 4.2 Am)
Mary Sutter, a skilled mid-wife by trade, is denied entry into medical school because she is not a male. She falls in love with a handsome young neighbor, but she is not pretty enough, and he becomes enamored with her beautiful twin sister. Paradoxically, the door that opens opportunities for Mary is the same one that ends the lives of so many others, The Civil War. And during the young country’s struggle to hold itself together, Mary strives to hold herself together as well. Mary leaves her home in Albany, New York to answer Dorthea Dix’s call for nurses in Washington DC, where she is again rejected—this time because she is not old enough. Due to sheer determination and persistence, she falls under the tutelage of two separate surgeons, who both fall in love with her, but more importantly, help her pursue her dreams. But sometimes you must be careful what you wish for…
The writer’s attention to historical details and her seamless weaving of fact and fiction makes the war come to life in this instant Civil War classic. I had to go take a shower to wash the gunpowder out of my hair.
If you enjoy this novel, you will have to visit The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. The kind folks who run the museum made Oliveira’s story come to life for me, again!
10. I’d like to have a number 10. I really would. And there are many books on my TBR list that might qualify—if I could ever get to them…
We’ll talk about them tomorrow (or you could click here now). See you then!