Mary Chesnut's Civil War by Mary Boykin Chesnut (Yale, $30). An indelible, eloquent, and ferociously intelligent account of the war from an intrguing source: Chesnut was the daughter of a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner and the wife of a former U.S. senator who worked closely with the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust (Vintage, $17). A deeply moving, exhaustively researched, and richly detailed exploration of the myriad ways in which death entered the American experience during the Civil War as never before. While showing how Americans struggled to improvise new ways of coping with death on an unprecedented scale, Faust tracks how the effort changed the American character, the psyche of the American people, and the nature of American culture and government.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (Oxford, $20). McPherson's Pulitzer-winning 1988 book is the best single-volume account of the Civil War ever written. It's an extraordinary book that synthesizes every salient cause, current and consequence pertinent to the four-year near-holocaust America visited on itself.
The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren (Bison, $14). First published half a century ago, Warren's short, incisive book deftly summarizes the way the Civil War reshaped America in multiple ways, and doesn't flinch from calling out Northerners and Southerners alike for the biases that continue to misshape our understanding of the war.
Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills (Simon & Schuster, $15). Another Pulitzer-winner, from 1992, Willis' analysis of Lincoln's seminal speech is a stunning tour de force — in its writing, in its exegesis, and in the case it makes for the permanent centrality of Lincoln's brief remarks at Gettysburg in November 1863.
Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson (Norton, $38). Wide-ranging, brilliant, idiosyncratic and indispensable, Wilson's view of the varied literature of the war is a classic of literary criticism, offering biographical study and cultural analysis all rolled into one. All the usual suspects, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Stephen Crane, are here, as well as a few surprises.
— Ric Burns is a writer and documentary filmmaker best known for producing and writing the PBS series The Civil War. His latest film, Death and the Civil War, premieres Tuesday, Sept. 18 on PBS