Walk by the history section in any bookstore, and you'll have no difficulty finding Civil War books. With the possible exception of World War II, no subject in American history is more thoroughly covered. So, you won't have any trouble finding a book on the subject.
But what if you aren't a full fledged Civil War buff willing to work your way from one end of the bookshelf to the other devouring every title? What if you don't want to read a curriculum's worth of Civil War books? Instead, you'd rather read just one or two that cover the most important stuff. How do you know which to choose?
Here are a couple Civil War books and authors that will long endure as classics. Whether you are "green" (that's Civil War soldier slang for inexperienced) or a veteran, these suggestions will teach you a few things you never knew about the Civil War.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
Winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, this book is the closest thing we have to a single volume definitive history of the Civil War. It covers the entire time period including: causes of the War, battles, politics, soldier life, the home front and the War's aftermath.
I know it sounds daunting, but don't worry. McPherson isn't just a great historian. He's an engaging author, too, structuring well-researched academic observation on a narrative framework that helps you see the Civil War as a story even as it delves deeply into topics like slavery, emancipation, conscription, and battle tactics.
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
You could write an article like this one about Lincoln biographies alone. But Donald's work is so comprehensive and acclaimed it belongs on a list of Civil War books, too. The political climate that led to War, and the handling of the War itself are seen here primarily from Lincoln's perspective. Not a bad vantage point to take in the War that gave America a "new birth of freedom".
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Perhaps you're in the mood for a story? This fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg (which became the movie "Gettysburg") is easily the most heralded novel about the Civil War. It provides historically accurate background on the battle that was the turning point in the War. And throughout, its descriptions offer answers to the ever-compelling question, "What was it like?" Even though it is fiction, Shaara's masterpiece is one of the best Civil War books to read if you want to get inside the head of a soldier.
The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote
Here is another book that reads like a story. But this one is non-fiction. Foote's storytelling covers the whole war entertainingly. What makes this work stand out, though, is its handling of the war in the west. If you are most interested in stories of the heroism, confusion, and sacrifice of battle, this is a title you will want to grab.
Any other book by one of the authors above; Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox; Drew Gilpin Faust's The Republic of Suffering; and E.L. Doctorow's The March.