The Top 6 Civil War Books According to Dr. James McPherson

Listeners to National Public Radio may be familiar with the popular show hosted by Diane Rehm. Rehm tackles a host of topics and issues on her segment, from current happenings and world news to human interest stories. The May 14 episode featured renowned Civil War historian and Pulitzer Prize Winner, Dr. James McPherson.  The entire program is well worth a listen and can be found online in its entirety here:

The bulk of the interview was focused on McPherson’s most recent work, The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters. The Civil War, according to McPhersonMcPherson, was the central event in American history, catapulting the country into a new era. Many of the most divisive, challenging, and pressing issues which we currently face as a nation, have their roots in the traumatic and tumultuous happenings of the 1860’s. In addition, McPherson states that the American Civil War forever determined the illegality of secession, ultimately strengthened the national government and turned the country from a loose Union of states into a true nation that would in time become the most powerful on earth.

As a companion piece to the radio interview, McPherson also outlined his picks for the top six books students of the Civil War should now be reading. His picks are an interesting and varied collection of works from some of the most recognizable names in the field of Civil War history.

1) Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution by Eric Foner
2) The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
3) Confederate Reckoning by Stephanie McCurry
4) Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon
5) Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865  by James Oakes
6) After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War  by Gregory P. Downs

Any such list is bound to create conversation. What do you think of McPherson’s selections? If you had to create just such a list, what would your six book be, and would they feature more traditional works of military history than McPherson’s compilation? We look forward to reading what works you would recommend.


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20 Responses to The Top 6 Civil War Books According to Dr. James McPherson

  1. Bill Holland says:

    Is this A list of Civil War books or post Civil War books. Anyone who read all 6 of those books would know very little about the War.

  2. Jim Letlow says:

    How about just the last six…1) The General Who Marched To Hell by Earl Schenck
    2) To Die In Chicago by George Levy
    3) Shiloh:Bloody April by Wiley Sword
    4) That Devil Forrest by John Allan Wyeth
    5) Red River Campaign by Ludwell H. Johnson
    6) Die Like Men by Tim Kent
    Currently re-reading… Struggle for the Round Tops by Morris M. Penny and J. Gary Laine

  3. R M Eller says:

    Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin should be on the list too.

  4. Al Mackey says:

    Anytime you try to make a list of books you’re going to leave things out. If these are books he recommends people read now, then it’s because he made that recommendation at the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. People reading those books would understand how the war ended and how emancipation came about. They would also gain an understanding of the Reconstruction era. I notice also that he included women authors on this list. The last time he gave a list of recommended books he caught a lot of flak because it was made up of books by old white guys. No list is going to make everyone happy.

  5. Michael Brasher says:

    With all due respect to Dr. McPherson, to not include Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative” is inexcusable.

    • Dolph Ramey says:

      Double down on your comment Mr. Brasher. And McPherson’s list leaves out a few “Late in Life” Biographies that are very interesting in depicting the day in-day out struggles of the war. Chief among them is ” I Rode With Stonewall” by Henry Kyd Douglas. His own memoirs:not published until 1940. Gen Jackson was an excellent assessor of character and Douglas was a trusted member of his staff until the day he passed.

  6. Dr. Kurt Eberly says:

    With a topic that is constantly having new literature added to it, and with the list of works in the tens of thousands, compiling a list of only six books on the Civil War has no meaning. It would be impossible to make such a short list that was comprehensive enough. McPherson seems to have only focused on emancipation and Reconstruction and a particular interpretation. Why didn’t he include his own Battle Cry of Freedom? The most detailed history of war remains Shelby Foote’s three volume narrative, and I would include it and at least something by Bruce Catton on any list. How about U.S. Grant’s memoirs? Primary works also deserve attention.

    • Michael Strong says:

      While Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton’s works are classic narratives, they both failed to note their sources which have continually frustrated students of the war. I would highly recommend the late Temple University historian Russell Weigley’s “A Great Civil War” as one of the best one volume histories of the war.

    • Well said, and counting Shelby Foote’s 3 volume set as one work, three EXCELLENT suggestions. But how would you decide which Bruce Catton book?

  7. Bruce Sarte says:

    I think that 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart has to be on this list.

  8. Abigail Denison says:

    The interview stated these were six books one should be reading now, notice the now. I have read the first two by Eric Foner, and will add the others to my list. I always appreciate any recommendation from Dr McPherson.

  9. Lee Elder says:

    Generally, I prefer battlefield-related Civil War books. That being said, my list of six must-read Civil War books is below. This list is in no particular order.
    #1 Pickett’s Charge in history and memory, by Carol Reardon. Simply a brilliant book.
    #2 Gettysburg: A testing of courage, by Noah Andre Trudeau.
    #3 Crucible of Command by William C. Davis
    #4 Mosby’s Memoirs, by John Singleton Mosby
    #5 Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears
    #6 Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson

  10. Ben Butina says:

    Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson

    The Life of Johnny Reb & The Life of Billy Yank, Bell Wiley

    Company Aytch, Sam Watkins

    Reflections on the Civil War, Bruce Carton

    Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight

    That’s my five. None of these books is perfect–obviously–and it’s not possible to cover everything in five books. Still, these five cover a lot of territory and are well-written.

  11. Mitchell Talbot says:

    I can honestly say that I have read most of these books and they didn’t help me get as good of an understanding for the war or what drove the men to fight it as many of the other titles that are now in my collection. Some of them provide a decent background for why the war took place, but I have found many books that are easier to read that can explain those things just as well.

  12. Dan Coyne says:

    I would include John Hope Franklin’s, “Reconstruction After the Civil War” if we are discussing books about the post-war period.

  13. Ralph Siegel says:

    Any list I might compile of contemporary good reads would have Professor McPherson’s newest essay collection in the top position.

  14. Martin Husk says:

    Creating a list of top Civil War books is difficult at best, especially when the subject matter is so expansive. The question really needs to be broken down into categories, like top 6 biographies, top 6 memoirs, top 6 battle histories, etc.

  15. Honor Guard says:

    Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy.
    Civil War Digest, Newman & Long
    American Heritage’s Civil War, Bruce Catton, ed.
    Battles and Leaders, various
    Ordeal By Fire, McPherson
    Ordeal of the Union, Nevins

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