For the upcoming release of Griswoldville, here's a list of my personal favorites from the vast body of Civil War literature. This is by no means an exhaustive list—there's a lot of good stuff out there and plenty I still haven't read, like Thomas Keneally's Confederates, Mackinlay Kantor's Pulitzer Prize-winning Andersonville, or even Gone With the Wind—but simply a list of the books I've been most moved by, have most enjoyed, and have most often returned to over the years.
So here, in no particular order, are my nine favorite Civil War novels, with a few honorable mentions or bonuses thrown in just because:
Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith
My mom ordered Rifles for Watie from the God's World Book Club flyer when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I remember plowing through the novel, simultaneously disappointed that it did not take place in the Civil War I was familiar with—the Eastern Theatre—and fascinated by the war it did depict. Rifles for Watie is a story of intrigue, in which Jeff Bussey, a young Union soldier, infiltrates the Confederate Indian cavalry of Stand Watie, a Cherokee leader. Watie hopes to acquire repeating rifles for his cavalry troopers, and Jeff, despite the friendships he has formed, must stop him. The novel respectfully depicts the Cherokees, their attitudes toward the war, and the chaotic Western Theatre, and is unusually realistic for children's fiction thanks to the author's many interviews with elderly Civil War veterans. Rifles for Watie won the Newbery Medal in 1958.
Also recommended: The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele, about a young pro-Confederate Tennessean who discovers his brother has joined the Yankees; G. Clifton Wisler's Red Cap, the story of a drummer boy imprisoned in Andersonville; and Brotherhood, by Anne Westrick, a daring novel about a boy in post-war Richmond who finds his humanity tested when his brother joins the Ku Klux Klan.
Shiloh, by Shelby Foote
If you find yourself daunted, as I do, by the sheer size of the late Shelby Foote's three-volume, 2,900 page, 1.2 million word The Civil War: A Narrative, start with Shiloh instead. Shiloh is a short, beautifully written and poignant novel taking place across about three days but encompassing the beginning of the war, the secession crisis, and the conflicts within the United States as a whole. Told through multiple points of view, from commanding generals on down to yeoman privates and a squad of volunteers, Foote's novel gives you glimpses of all the major events of the battle through several interpretations, and hints broadly, because of the battle's course and results, at what the outcome of the war must be. More importantly, it brings you into the battle, giving you that difficult to achieve feeling of what it must have been like, to make you understand the experiences of the soldiers themselves. A great book.
Also recommended: Shelby Foote also edited Chickamauga and Other Civil War Stories, a collection of short stories from authors including Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Eudora Welty. More about Bierce below.
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
I came to The Killer Angels through Gettysburg, the 1993 film adaptation. As a kid I had a VHS copy of the movie, recorded off TNT, which I watched on a near endless loop, but when I finally read the novel I found the only thing superior to the film. Shaara's book is much like Foote's Shiloh in that it is the dramatic, beautifully written story of a single battle that, through its multiple points of view, offers a sweeping look at the whole war. But it differs from Shiloh in its scope thanks to the sheer scale of the battle, the largest ever fought in North America, and in the thoughtful, melancholy introspection of its major characters, especially James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Joshua Chamberlain. One of the most popular Civil War novels ever published, justifiably so, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975.
Also recommended: Promise of Glory, by C.X. Moreau, covers the September 1862 Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) and owes a lot to The Killer Angels in terms of structure, focus, and tone. Promise of Glory doesn't reach the heights of Shaara's work, but it's a solid fictional recreation of another important moment of the war.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Justly regarded as a classic, The Red Badge of Courage suffers somewhat from its near constant presence in high school reading lists. This is the story of Henry Fleming, a young Union army private, and his experiences during the (unnamed) Battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. While Crane was not a veteran of the war, he did his homework and crafted a short novel of unflinching psychological realism, capturing every vicissitude of dread, cowardice, and reckless courage over the day or so that Fleming wanders through the battlefield. While this novel clearly made later works of grim, realistic war fiction like The Naked and the Dead possible, Crane's story is apolitical, unembittered by ideology, and narrowly focused on one thing—courage—and what it means. Actual veterans praised Crane's work, and it's still worth reading a century on.
Also recommended: Ambrose Bierce, an older contemporary of Crane and a veteran of the war's western theatre, wrote a number of short stories based on his experiences. "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" is an early stream-of-consciousness story about a Confederate saboteur who is about to be hanged, and "Chickamauga" depicts the horrific aftermath of battle as seen by a child.
Traveller, by Richard Adams
Probably the strangest book on this list, and one of the strangest I routinely recommend, Traveller is the story of Robert E. Lee—as told by his horse. Adams, who is most famous for his other animal epic, Watership Down, retells the course of the war through a goodhearted but ignorant animal witness. It sounds goofy, but the story works well because it brings a fresh sense of pathos to the war through a narrator who only half understands what is going on. In a half-comic, half-tragic irony, Traveller ends the war thinking his side has won, and the note of triumph he brings to his storytelling only deepens the reader's sense of loss. Surprisingly engaging, and even more surprisingly moving.
Also recommended: For another outside angle on a major Civil War figure, read A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, by Stephen Harrigan. This novel offers a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a young, ambitious frontier lawyer and brims with colorful real life characters and incidents even if the narrator, a failed New England poet, is fictional. Though the story transpires decades before the war, this novel, like Traveller, is freighted with irony and sadness because of what we know is coming.
Woe to Live On, by Daniel Woodrell
Like Rifles for Watie, mentioned above, Woe to Live On tells a story from an out-of-the-way corner of the war, one where most of the usual narratives and assumptions about North and South don't apply. Set in Missouri, the novel follows Jake Roedel, son of a German immigrant, his best friend Jack Bull Chiles, their planter friend George, and George's slave Daniel as they fight with a group of Bushwhackers, Confederate guerrillas led by Col. William Quantrill, in the confused, morally grey irregular warfare of the back country. Rivalry with other fighters, the Lawrence Massacre of August 1863, liberation, friendship, love, death, and birth all play a part in this dramatic, surprisingly funny, and moving novel. Woe to Live On is also the basis of Ride With the Devil, a film adaptation directed by Ang Lee.
Also recommended: While taking place postbellum, True Grit, by the great Charles Portis, is deeply informed by the war. The narrator Mattie's father was a Confederate veteran, as is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who refers to hanging Judge Parker as "an old carpetbagger," lost his eye while fighting with Quantrill in Missouri.
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
A combination of Homer and Appalachian family lore, Cold Mountain tells the parallel stories of Inman, a Confederate soldier returning to his home in western North Carolina as a deserter in late 1864, and Ada, his beloved, who is working desperately to keep her farm afloat after the unexpected death of her minister father. Episodic in the manner of the Odyssey, with grotesque and monstrous dangers along the way, Cold Mountain is full of brilliantly realized characters and evokes both a real time and place—and their dangers—as well as the world of myth. It's a magnificent novel, full of longing, hope, melancholy, and meditation on danger and death, and deservedly won the National Book Award in 1997.
Also recommended: The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers, tells the story of the teenage wife of a Confederate officer who is recalled to his regiment the day after their wedding. Through letters, diary entries, and court records, a mystery involving adultery, slavery, hidden pregnancy, and murder uncoils across the decades following the war. I didn't quite buy the ending, but the novel is a powerfully evocative and brings postbellum piedmont South Carolina to life.
The Black Flower and The Judas Field, by Howard Bahr
These are the books I've most recently discovered, and how I missed them until two years ago I don't know. The central event of each is the disastrous 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, a few hours of appalling waste that shape the rest the characters' lives. The Black Flower, Bahr's first novel, takes place over the day of the battle and follows Bushrod Carter, a teenage private, and Anna Hereford, a young woman staying with cousins at a house near the center of the battlefield. The Judas Field is the post-war story of Cass Wakefield, a middle-aged veteran, as he accompanies a dying friend on her quest to find the bodies of her brother and father. Both are powerful, beautifully written works that evoke the time and place well and bring home the war's horror, pain, and overwhelming loss—the war's fruits for most of the ordinary people who took part.
Also recommended: The Year of Jubilo, by Howard Bahr, the second book of this loose trilogy, centers on the return of Private Gawain Harper to Mississippi after the war. Harper hopes to marry his sweetheart, but her father will only consent if he helps kill the brutal leader of the local Home Guard. Another vivid evocation of early Reconstruction.
Griswoldville is in the final stages of proofing and will be available soon. I hope you'll read and enjoy it, and that you'll check out some of these other great books as well. Thanks for reading!
Since writing this post I have read Andersonville, which may not quite crack my top nine but is an epic of the kind American writers don’t produce any more. You can read my review here.
Also, Griswoldville came out just over a month after I published this post. My readers have given it generous reviews. Please do check it out! It’s available in both paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon. Click here to shop for it, or read more about it, including a collection of reader comments, by clicking here. I’ve also published two excerpts on my website that you can read here and here. Thanks again!