So you want to honor the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War's outbreak by learning about its causes, characters, and conflicts. But you don't want to waste your time on books that fail to offer an honest, fair assessment of this event that continues to shape American attitudes and identity. (After all, that's what reviewers are for. We read so you don't have to.) You have questions: What caused the war? Was it inevitable? Who were the main characters, and why did we name streets, statues, and squares after them? Why did ordinary men fight? Maybe you want to go even deeper and learn about the doctrinal debates surrounding slavery and secession and how theologians and pastors explained the unprecedented death and destruction.
If these questions pique your interest, consider picking up one or more of these essential Civil War reads this summer.
1. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James McPherson
This is the definitive one-volume account of the war's origins, progress, and conclusion. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, McPherson's account covers a lot of ground in nearly 1,000 pages. But even here several important battles receive little attention from the renowned Princeton historian. No one volume can really explain the myriad issues—political, military, social, and more—with sufficient depth. Still, if you're looking for one book that will teach you the basics and so much more, you can't do better than than McPherson.
2. A Stillness at Appamatox, The Army of the Potomac Trilogy, Vol. 3, by Bruce Catton
Popular memory assumes Gettysburg decided the war in July 1863. Unfortunately, nearly two years of mass casulaties followed, imperling President Abraham Lincoln's re-election prospects and thus the Union cause. So how did he and the United States survive? No one tells the story like Bruce Catton, who also earned a Pulitzer Prize for this riveting tale of horror and heroism among the soldiers led by U. S. Grant from 1864 through Robert E. Lee's surrender in April 1865.
3. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, by Mark A. Noll
This relatively short, dense analysis packs a punch. You'll never look at the war the same way again. All of a sudden you'll wonder why you never before connected the crisis of biblical authority in the 19th century with the crisis of biblical intpretation over slavery between evangelicals North and South. You can't help but read Noll and wonder how we undermine the Bible's authority today by passing off our national sins as God's commands.
4. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout
May the Lord have mercy if some day historians look back on our preaching and find so much flag waving and so little gospel. Stout digs through the archives of preachers and theologians North and South, and you won't like reading what he uncovered. Stout juxtaposes their patriotic sermons with reports of the shocking battlefield carnage that far surpassed anything Americans were prepared to accept or comprehend when Southern batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in 1861. At the same time, you will grow to appreciate Lincoln for somehow rising above the bloodthirsty demand for revenge to deliver some of the most magnanimous public theology in American history.
5. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz
The Civil War long since ended, but it's not really over. Journalist Tony Horwitz writes a humorous yet poingnant reflection based on an early 1990s tour of battlefields and conservations with fellow re-enactors. This quirky cast of characters represents merely one public manifestation of the war's pervasive presence, even today. Horwitz writes as an intense Civil War buff but draws in readers less inclined to recognize the connection between that transformative era and contemporary politics and race relations.
These are my five essential Civil War reads, but no doubt other readers could add to the list with their own suggestions from the voluminous literature on this period. Should the Lord tarry another 150 years, historians will probably still be writing about the American Civil War.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. You can follow him on Twitter.