If the Civil War’s on your to-study list, these books will help you dig into the complicated, bloody conflict that continues to inform American consciousness today.
Albert Marrin’s Civil War trilogy — Commander in Chief: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, Unconditional Surrender: U.S. Grant and the Civil War, and Virginia’s General: Robert E. Lee & the Civil War — makes a great read aloud spine for your Civil War studies. Marrin does an excellent job illuminating the personalities and events of the Civil War while still presenting a straightforward, chronological history.
Janis Herber’s The Civil War for Kids: A History With 21 Activities includes hands-on projects like making butternut dye (used by Confederate soldiers on their uniforms), baking hardtack (a food staple for soldiers in the fields), and decoding wigwag (a flag system used to pass messages long distances during the Civil War).
The Civil War was the first technology-assisted war, and new weapons, communication devices, and transportation systems played a significant role in the war’s outcome. In Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H. L. Hunley, Sally Walker explores the history of the Confederate submarine that became the first submarine to sink a ship in wartime — though it never resurfaced after the battle. Walker tackles both the science and history of the submarine’s Civil War days and the modern-day forensic work of discovering and investigating the sunken vessel.
How can neighbors fight on different sides of the same war? Harold Keith’s Rifles for Watie does a nice job illustrating the complexities of the war through the experiences of fictional Kansas teenager Jefferson Davis Bussey, who finds himself fighting for both the Union and Confederate armies over the course of the war. Keith also focuses his narrative on the war’s western front, which may not be as familiar to younger historians.
When Steve Sheinkin was writing history textbooks, he hated that the most interesting bits always seemed to get left out. He cheerfully remedies that problem in Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War, an engrossing, anecdote-rich history of the War Between the States that’s equal parts smart and surprising.
Talking about slavery can be one of the hardest parts of studying the Civil War with your kids. Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom by Virginia Hamilton manages to tackle to subject with a rare combination of sensitivity and thoroughness.
Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils focuses on life on the homefront. There are no heroic charges or dramatic battles for teenage Jethro Creighton, just the increasingly difficult task of keeping the family farm going while his brothers are away fighting in the Civil War.
Paul Fleischman’s Bull Run is a collection of sixteen monologues reflecting the personal experiences of people of different ages, races, genders, and regions during the First Battle of Bull Run.
Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen is not an easy book to read, but this novel about 15-year-old Charley Goddard, who enlists with the First Minnesota Volunteers at the start of the Civil War and who returns home four years later, forever changed by his experiences, is powerful stuff.
The lasting impact of the Civil War is the central focus of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Though it’s more appropriate for older readers, Horowitz’s journey into the legacy of the Confederacy in the modern-day South raises the kinds of questions that can keep you talking for days.
This list is excerpted from an article in the spring 2015 issue of HSL.