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13 Excellent American Civil War Resources for Beginners

Audrey holds a BA in Art History and takes special interest in the Iberian Peninsula’s art and architecture and Civil War era America.

Some of the author's distant family members from the American Civil War Era

Some of the author's distant family members from the American Civil War Era

13 Excellent American Civil War Resources for Beginners

When I began researching my family tree about five years ago, I came across one elusive and interesting family member who fought in the American Civil War (ACW). As I dug deeper into the facts of his life, I found myself reading numerous Civil War documents such as rosters, receipts, muster rolls, and pension requests. All of these things helped me answer the questions I had about my genealogy research, but I soon noticed that they shed very little light on exactly what it was like to be alive from 1861-1865 in the United and Confederate States of America. This is when I became interested in reading about (and, in a way, watching) the Civil War in order to catch a glimpse of those past Americans’ way of life.

I am not wholly interested in facts of war, such as what battle was fought where, who flanked what, and what kind of maneuver was performed. I must admit, I trudge through documents like that. I am very interested and moved by firsthand accounts and biographies of people who lived and fought during the ACW, as well as contemporary and present-day fiction based on the Civil War. Slowly but surely, this war is being forgotten. People are forgetting (and misrepresenting) why the war was even fought, and still others cannot draw a parallel between our polarized nation’s present-day intense split and the treacherous divide between the North and South of this country in the 1800s. It has been said that we should never forget anything from history, lest we foolishly fall into repeating it. It is difficult to imagine how lost, distressed, and hopeless Americans felt while a war was raging around their hometowns, all their men were gone or dead, and inflation left everyone in poverty. Indeed, we should not forget such a steep price that was paid for this nation. Below I list thirteen excellent resources to help you grasp the seriousness and the essence of life during the American Civil War.

The Civil War in Print and from Varying Perspectives

1. “Hard Tack and Coffee” by John D. Billings, 1887

I stumbled across this book at my local library and could not put it down for weeks. It is a firsthand postbellum recollection of army life by a former Union soldier from Massachusetts named John D. Billings. Throughout this work, Billings does not focus on where they fought, strategy, or even casualties. Instead, he delves into human nature, identifying lazy individuals as beats and unlucky or accident prone individuals as Jonahs. He describes in detail how camp life functioned, including details about the food they ate, the people who cooked it, different duties that were performed at camp, as well as how they set up their tents. At the end of the book he discussed defense methods and war machines such as ships and canons. Every now and then, Billings’ own personal ideas and opinions pop up, sprinkling the work throughout with his own flavor. If you need to know more about camp life for an ACW soldier, look no further than this non-fiction work. This book is available for free online, and you can find it by searching the title.

2. "Mary Chesnut’s Civil War", Edited by C. Vann Woodward (1981)

Many are familiar with Mary Chesnut’s “A Diary from Dixie,” which was an abridged version of her cryptic and rambling inner monologues written on paper. If you want the full, juicy goodness of everything that ran through an ACW era aristocrat’s mind as the world fell apart around her, I would suggest going for the huge edition edited by C. Vann Woodward. Much of what you read will leave you hoping she gets to the point sooner rather than later, but so many personal vignettes and studies of people she knew and their characters are littered throughout, making it a thought-provoking and sobering read. The topic of death and reactions to death as the war went on is noteworthy in this work, as is her inclusion of a tense love story in the form of a young Southern high class girl, and a rough-around-the-edges general, who never ended up marrying. This work is not available for free online but it is worth the money for the background and insight it gives you into the feelings and society surrounding the American Civil War. In fact, it’s a work you may want to keep going back and reading, as it is so long that it is not possible to remember all of the important parts.

3. "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

Although this is a novel, it was written in 1852 by an abolitionist and gives great insight into society, how people lived, what they did in their private lives and free time, and even different types of personalities. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an incredible student of human emotion, and the end of this book will leave you crying over injustice, as well as crying because you feel like you have lost a loved one. Today, the term Uncle Tom has deviated from its original meaning to label a sell-out, or someone who betrays his own people. The real character of Uncle Tom could not have been farther from this truth. The character of Uncle Tom was a pure-hearted, God-fearing, helpful, truthful, hard-working, family-oriented man, who refused to back down and held his integrity until the end. If people really knew who Uncle Tom was in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, they would be honored to be called his name. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is free of charge on your iPhone book app or on Google Books.

4. "Rebel Yell" by S. C. Gwynne (2015)

"Rebel Yell" is easily the best Civil War General biography I have ever read. Its treatment of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson is both historically accurate and emotionally intriguing. We are shown a towering and socially awkward man who was the butt of many jokes among rambunctious young male students at the schools where he taught, but who also turned out to be one of the greatest strategists and most brilliant minds the American Civil War ever saw. He was obsessively punctual and hard-working, but cold and odd to have around in conversation. He was killed too soon by infections caused by friendly fire and is famous for his last words (and possible vision of the after-life), “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” There are so many more poignant details of Jackson’s life that are expertly crafted into this fantastic work of literature, which I recommend wholeheartedly for any newcomer to ACW history or research. As a newer release, it is not available for free, but can be purchased online used for as little as $6 or in the history section of your nearest large book store for around $20.

5. "Curiosities of the Civil War" by Webb Garrison (2011)

Webb Garrison, in my opinion, is a walking brain. He so intelligently crafts books and is an absolute expert with few equals on ACW history, and in this case, curiosities. His two books, “Curiosities of the Civil War” and the second part, “More Curiosities of the Civil War” both show the reader lesser known facts and occurrences of the ACW era. Topics such as banishment, friendly fire, and name changes are touched on in these books, as a result of him stumbling across many random facts from his museum visits and readings, and subsequently recording and organizing them into these two priceless volumes (in terms of research, that is). If you want to head off the beaten path of Civil War history and learn some things that have more to do with things that happened in the regular soldier’s life, and less to do with major battles and casualties, then this is the perfect place to start. I found these books at thrift stores, but they can also be purchased online used from $8 or at the book store for around $20.

The Civil War in Film

While I am of the school that believes that there has really not ever been a good American Civil War movie made, there are representations in film both present and past that can give you a better idea of what things looked like, at least, and some vocabulary or social systems that were used.

1. Cold Mountain (2003)

This drama was based on the novel of the same title by Charles Frazier and stars Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. The main plot line is romance, but you can learn a lot about fashion, social classes, home guards, food, customs, and the type of work that was done around the homestead by watching this film.

2. Glory (1989)

This film stars Matthew Broderick as the General of a regiment made up of free African Americans and former slaves, and the struggles they go through to meld and grow as a team. In the end, their last mission will leave you in tears as you witness their bravery and valor on the shore of the beach where they are stationed. You can learn a lot about the vocabulary used during those times, social classes, northern aristocracy, and camp life by watching this film. It is based on a true story, but we all know Hollywood took liberties in its portrayal. Even though I feel most ACW films fall short, this is probably the best example of ACW film so far. (Hollywood directors, consider this a challenge.)

3. Gone with the Wind (1939)

Easily my least favorite of all Civil War based films, this long, drawn out, fanciful representation of the novel of the same name will make you truly hate a lead character more than you ever have. Still, it has a happy ending—she gets dumped! The fashion, hair, and buildings this is set in are truly remarkable and arguably more true to history, considering it was filmed about 75 years after the end of the American Civil War. Back then, they would have had more recollection, or even living ancestors who could shed light on how things were in the mid-1800s.

4. Gettysburg (1993)

I watched Gettysburg years ago and was very bored at the time. The portrayals of battle were obviously very cinematic and a bit robotic, but not corny at all, and camp life, soldier life, and battle in general are showed in great detail and much can be gained from watching this film for the beginning civil war researcher.

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York does not have a lot to do with the American Civil War, but it was set around the same time and the fact of it is woven in the movie, although the film focuses more on immigration. What I really enjoyed from this movie was the fashion and background in the beautifully shot scenes throughout, regardless of the other things that were going on. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say they were gangs like you never imagined.

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6. Lincoln (2012)

Starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sallie Field, this is a delicious saga for any intellectual who wants to sit and decipher hours upon hours of Abraham Lincoln’s talk. The first time I watched it when I was uninterested in the American Civil War, I turned it off out of boredom. The second time, when my interest was piqued, I watched fervently, glued to the screen, and rewound several times so I would grasp the full concept of all things presented. It is wonderfully and even poetically shot, my favorite scene being a fight between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln about her depression and his indifference over their son’s death. The scene of the confrontation was staged in the white house, their voices rising to screeching crescendos as they each fought to be heard, like two tragic opera singers belting out their notes. In the end, an understanding silence prevailed. Indeed, this is one of the best written and shot movies on this list, although it has everything to do with Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and nothing to do with seeing the War, only talking excessively about it.

7. Ken Burns’ Civil War (1990)

In the 1990s, Ken Burns made a six-part television mini-series documentary about the Civil War that includes lots of historical, strategical, and social facts and includes contemporary music as well as photographs. It is a moving expose of exactly what happened leading up to, during, and immediately after. I recommend watching it little by little, because even though it is a set of films, it is chocked full of information, though presented in an easy-to-understand way via interviews from experts and keeping things in simple terms.

8. Free State of Jones (2016)

This is a film about a free land in the South that was protected by Southern abolitionists, and the intriguing genealogy questions that surfaced nearly one hundred years later. Clothing, social classes, customs, and war scenes are of value in this film.

A Last Word to Civil War Researchers

As in researching any war, the American Civil War has boundless resources and limitless accounts. The more you dig, the more you will find to go through. These resources above, however, are an excellent place to start as you learn more about the bloodiest war fought on American Soil, that changed the face and morale of our nation forever.

© 2018 Audrey Lancho


Audrey Lancho on June 10, 2019:

Thank you for the suggestion, Mel! I will check that out. I’ll give you a follow, too.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on June 10, 2019:

How refreshing to find another Civil War buff here. You are correct in suggesting that the Civil War is still being played out in our political life today. You might want to try the book Cloudsplitter by Russel Banks, a novel about abolitionist John Brown that I will review at a later date. This is not among the best novels I have read, but it opened my eyes to how important John Brown was in bringing about the conflict. Great article.

SAPO Mail on June 19, 2018:

Universitat de Barcelona - Noticies

Audrey Lancho (author) from Spain on June 10, 2018:

Mary—I really enjoyed that movie, but Cold Mountain is the one I go back to over and over. I just can’t get over how it looks. A feast for the eyes for any ACW fan.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 10, 2018:

We just watched Free State of Jones and we were really happy we did as this is a piece of U.S. history we never knew about. It piqued our interest to read further on this tiny piece of U.S. history.

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