Thoughts on Civil War Fiction

Civil War Fiction

Books about the Civil War continue to be churned out. I think the War Between the States must be one of the most popular topics to write about. Through the years, I’ve managed to build up a respectable library on the War, both of fiction and nonfiction. Some of the literature is very good, some VERY bad—badly written, full of inaccuracies and stereotypes and misinformation. I’m working on a book for one of my publishers, Booklocker, on how to write about the Civil War, and I’m designing a college-level course on Civil War fiction. This book is on the list of my future projects, and as soon as I get a lot of rat killing done, I can see to it.

As an English teacher for both the high school and college levels, I’ve read and taught many books about the Civil War that are in the genre of fiction. If you’re a teacher, or just one who is interested in reading good Civil War fiction, here’s a list of a few of those books with some comments.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. An all time best seller and classic on the Civil War—and with good reason. I don’t think anyone has written anything comparable. It is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, few in the modern generation have read it. Few have even seen the movie, one of the greatest movies of all time.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier The movie was good, the book is better, but as they say, “Never judge a book by its movie.” This novel is rich in detail, honest about the Confederates who fought in the war, and more or less written from a Confederate-friendly point of view. His second epic novel on the Civil War didn’t have as much success, in spite of the big bucks he received for it.

Andersonville by McKinlay Kantor. When I first began reading this novel, I was expecting more of the usual Yankee-point-of-view misinformation and propaganda. I was delightfully surprised. An honest representation of both sides and an unsettling description of this Georgia prisoner of war camp.

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. Okay, I know this is a commonly taught book, on at least one AP list I’ve seen, and I know it presents the dynamics of a divided country (and families) well, but the ending spoiled it for me. The ending (with a deus ex machina feel to it) promotes the “Saint Lincoln” myth. I suppose Lincoln was capable of acts of kindness on occasion, but for every deserter he spared (as in this story) he executed or arrested many more, including civilians.

The Writings of Ambrose Bierce: Bierce is best known for his story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which is rightfully a standard inclusion in high school and college anthologies. Bierce actually wrote a collection of Civil War Stories and it is worth reading. Though he was a Yankee, he writes about the war with the venom of a Copperhead (Democrats in the North who opposed the war). Definitely worth reading. I recently taught his haunting story, “Chickamauga” in my college American Literature class.

Stephen Crane: Crane is the author of The Red Badge of Courage which has been a classic for a long time. This is a great novel. Though the main character is a Yankee soldier, it is NOT a anti-South book. Rather, it reflects the philosophy of Naturalism which Crane embraced. A beautiful and well-written novel. Crane also has a collection of short fiction about the War entitled, The Little Regiment and Other Stories. This is also a good read.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel should be read in conjunction with God’s and Generals and The Last Full Measure by Jeffrey Shaara, Michael’s son. As I’m sure you know, God’s and Generals was made into a movie. Killer Angels was the basis of the movie, Gettysburg. There are Youtube segments of this movie and I even found a study guide for Gettysburg.

I’ll have more to say on the literature of the Civil War in future articles.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Civil War Fiction

  1. Great list and one I concur with for the most part. (I wasn’t swept away by Cold Moutain, but was glad that I had read it).

    By the way, I am also the author of historical fiction set during the Civil War, “Shades of Gray: A Novel of the Civil War in Virginia.” If you ever find time to read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. This is a great list. I was suprised at how many I’ve actually read, since I don’t really read Civil War fiction all that often. Andersonville gave me nightmares for days after I’d read it.

    One book I really enjoyed that’s not on your list was David H. Jones’ Two Brothers. His attention to detail in describing the brothers’ lives really appealed to the historian in me.

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