American Civil War Biographies Top Ten Booklist

Lee by Douglas Freeman

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrender his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the American Civil War. The four years of bloody carnage forever altered the course of the nation. Perhaps the pivotal period in American History, the Civil War was led by some of the most renowned figures in American History.

The library of texts pertaining to the Civil War Era ranges from scholarly research to pure fiction. Some of the most informative works come in the biography genre. The countless memoirs and autobiographies are essential to professional researchers and historians and have proved indispensable to the modern biographer. Cohesively combining letters, memoirs, reports, and oral histories is a monumental task for the biographer; yet when successfully completed, a Civil War biography brings the 19th century legends to life. Below is our list of the biographies essential to library of any student of the Civil War.

Top Ten

Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee edited by Richard Harwell, abridged edition (New York: Scribner, 1997).

This abridged version, masterfully edited by Richard Harwell, in no less brilliant than Freeman’s 1934 four edition masterpiece. Through meticulous research and an easy writing style, the author introduces Lee to the reader as a nuanced and complicated leader. The events and regrets of his early life offer a great deal of insight into the mind of this brilliant tactician, inspired leader, and complex man. This is the standard by which all other accounts of Lee’s life are measured.

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).

This newly released account of Grant deserves a place in any Civil War library. White admirably accepts the challenge of defending Grant through painstaking research into the events that led to the often unfounded denigration of the general. In this flowing narrative, Grant is never glamourized, rather he is humanized as a flawed man. Too often, historical figures are either completely romanticized or vilified; this is not the case with this fascinating look into the life of a floundering cadet, failed businessman, leader of the Union Army, and President of the United States. Like his subject, White runs the gamut and dares to debunk myths, thereby causing one to reconsider Ulysses S. Grant.

In the Hands of Providence by Alice Turlock

Alice Rains Turlock, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led a fascinating and exemplary life. This scholar turned soldier achieved much throughout the course of his life, he is; however, most remembered for his heroics on the crest of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. This unlikely soldier truly was a hero on the July afternoon in 1863. His education and natural intelligence made him an officer; his grit and tactical understanding made him a soldier. Turlock weaves her exhaustive research into a sinuous narrative that reads like a novel. Overflowing with historical facts and personal events, this brilliant text is the definitive biography of an extraordinary man.

Terry Alford, Fortunes Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

This award winning biography offers a nuanced look at the highly successful and deeply troubled actor. Alford gives a chronological account of the infamous assassin through a psychological lens, highlighting the tumultuous relationship between him and his father. At the peak of his career, Booth was the most acclaimed and celebrated actor of his time. The native Marylander became increasingly interested in the Southern cause, until he Confederate fervor reached an obsessive pitch. Once the cause was officially lost, he turned that obsession into a hatred for all things from the North; which of course included President Lincoln. The twelve day manhunt that followed the assassination is vividly depicted by the author and reads like an adventure novel. The descriptions of the murder, chase, and eventual death of Booth are smoothly inserted into the clear picture of the period painted by the author. In no way does this book romanticize Booth, rather it offers insight into the mentally unstable mind of the assassin.

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010).

This Pulitzer Prize winner is not merely another biography of Lincoln. Eric Foner focuses this biography specifically on issues of slavery as they related to Lincoln. The author’s sole focus of the book is to trace his subject’s progression in his opinions of slavery. Biographical information is provided in the context of how certain events shaped Lincoln’s politics and to monitor his evolution of ideas. As he was a prolific writer, Lincoln left an abundance of facts with which to work and Foner delightfully disseminates those facts into a polarization of Lincoln and the peculiar institution of the South. Aside from Lincoln’s personal feelings on the matter, Foner also covers the delicate dance he had to perform in order to placate abolitionists, Radical Republicans, and both houses of congress. Another masterful work by Foner.

The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher by Paul Wylie

Paul R. Wylie, The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).

From being a hero in Ireland to the falling out with his Irish brethren in American, Thomas Francis Meagher was a complex and flawed leader during the American Civil War. Meagher organized and led the famed Irish Brigade to notoriety through his inspired orations and appeal to Irish-Americans that the survival of the Union was tantamount to an independent Ireland. The enigmatic general was more than a leader of a military brigade, he served as the kingpin of the Irish-American communities in the North. Paul Wylie traces Meagher’s life from being a lad in Ireland, through the Civil War, his decline in the eyes of his Irish followers, and finally his territorial governorship in Montana Territory, including his mysterious death. With all of his flaws, Meagher was at one time adored by Irish-Americans and Wylie does an admiral job of reconciling the conflicting opinions of Meagher’s critics. This is a lesser-known gem of Civil War biographies that paints a nuanced portrait of the bombastic Irish general.

James Robertson, Stonewall Jackson (New York: Macmillan, 1997).

Had Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson lived past 1863, would the outcome of the Civil War been different? This question has been debate among historians for decades without a definitive answer. This book is recommended to students of the Civil War as a means by which to contemplate that very question. Once the chronological progression of the war is understood, one must revisit Jackson in order to determine if his daring strategies and brilliant tactics could have altered history, specifically the Battle of Gettysburg. Robertson follows Jackson’s growth so completely that he reveals tremendous insight into his subject’s complex and almost paradoxical mind. Continually stressing the religious aspect of Jackson’s character, which was unshakeable, Robertson weaves this into every event of his life. As a devoutly religious man, Jackson was a relentless soldier who saw killing as a necessary part of battle and managed to reconcile the carnage of war with his Christian faith. Robertson does a marvelous job of integrating the contradictions of the man who may have changed the course of history.

Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton

Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2004).

Catherine Clinton has written the essential Tubman biography for adult readers. So much of what has been previously written about Tubman was directed to an audience of children; therefore, it is refreshing and important that we have a well-researched and nicely written text about this courageous hero. Clinton avails herself of all possible research, including verified oral histories to portray Harriet Tubman as a person rather than as a symbol of the Underground Rail Road. This fine biography also speaks to students of African American and women’s studies. Although Tubman was illiterate, she was highly intelligent and Clinton has delved into subject to tell the story from the perspective of an oppressed person. Anyone studying the Civil War must be educated as to the courage and importance of Harriet Tubman and as of the present, this is the definitive biography of the woman known as “Moses.”

James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Everything James McPherson writes is excellent, and his brief biography of Lincoln is no exception. In less than seventy pages, McPherson covers the life of President Lincoln in a succinct manner yet manages to give great insight into this layered man. Using concise language, the author offers detailed information about Lincoln and the events of the period, prompting the reader to pursue further studies. As with all of his work, McPherson uses an abundance of primary sources so effectively that the reader will witness the evolution of Lincoln in just a few pages. Everything James McPherson has written must be included in one’s Civil War library.

James Lee McDonough, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016).

McDonough gives new life to this fascinating figure. Sherman was, and still is, a man either very loved or greatly despised. This biography challenges readers from both camps to discover new facets of Sherman’s character. Great attention is paid to his pre-War years so as to provide greater insight into the choices Sherman made during the War and beyond. Discussed are his torments, bouts with depression, and enduring friendship with Ulysses S. Grant. Although derived mainly from primary sources, this biography reads like a novel and causes Sherman to be examined from the perspective of a flawed man burdened with tremendous responsibility during the most pivotal time in American history.

Updated September 4, 2017

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