writing about the American Civil War, research resources list

Writing About the Civil War: Research

Writing about the American Civil War is a daunting task, with so many themes, battles, personalities, and other issues to sort through, plus the mountains of research materials to study. Some of these research materials are easy to find online, while others require an in-person visit to a library, university, or another site. Some can be accessed at no cost, while others require a fee or membership.

To help you get started writing your book about the American Civil War, I’ve prepared this list of research resources. The list is geared toward authors just venturing into the field. It’s not exhaustive or wide-ranging enough but will get you started.

Please note that I am not vouching for the accuracy of the information offered by any particular site or person, or endorsing their views. I am simply providing you with ideas for research as you prepare to write your book on the American Civil War.

Collections of Civil War Resources

A great place to begin your research is by studying the materials available at the Library of Congress, National Archives, and other large repositories of Civil War documents, images, newspapers, and more. These include:

Library of Congress Civil War Collection (LOC) – The LOC contains, online and/or on-site, a vast trove of Civil War-related materials, including photographs and prints, manuscripts, maps, newspaper maps, and newspapers. Special Collections at the LOC include the Abraham Lincoln Papers, the Andrew Johnson Papers, the Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints, and the Civil War Sheet Music Collection.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – NARA is a rich source of primary documents for the Civil War, including government documents, military records, letters, and diaries. Go to NARA’s website and type “American Civil War” in the search bar. In addition, the NARA offers an excellent article on Civil War Records: Basic Research Sources, with links to numerous research sources.

Hathi Trust – The Trust presents the Cornell University Library Making of America Collection, which “is comprised of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction.”

National Park Services – In addition to preserving and interpreting numerous Civil War battlefields and related sites, the Park Service offers educational articles and research materials such as the Soldiers and Sailors Database.

Civil War Trust/American Battlefield Trust – In addition to preserving Civil War battlefields, the Trust offers resources including battle summaries, maps, and primary documents.

Documenting the American South – This is “a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture.” Among the collections at the site are “The Civil War Day By Day,” “North American Slave Narratives” and “The Southern Homefront, 1861-1865.”

The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War – This site contains articles and links that allow you to “explore the lives of people swept up in the great American dramas of slavery, war, and emancipation. The two communities, one in the North and one in the South, experienced every national challenge from secession through Reconstruction.” You’ll find links to newspapers, diaries, census information, church records, and other research sources.

War Records, Correspondence, Etcetera

Writing a book about the Civil War may take you deep into descriptions of the armies and the battles they fought. If so, you may want to consult resources such as:

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion – Officially titled A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, this extensive collection, spanning 127 volumes, includes reports, correspondence, orders, and other primary documents from both Union and Confederate forces.

A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, Compiled and Arranged from Official Records – This digitized version of Frederick Dyer’s original 1908 Compendium of the War of the Rebellion contains information on the Union Army’s organization, regimental movements and assignments, battles, and casualty figures.

Civil War Diaries, Memoirs, and Letters

Writing a book about the Civil War invariably demands that you discuss the people involved, whether they be presidents or privates, slaves or slavers, captains of industry or shopkeepers. Fortunately, many soldiers, government officials, and civilians wrote books, diaries and letters offering a great deal of insight into the war and the people involved.

These include Mary Chestnut’s Civil War; The Diary of George Templeton Strong; The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant; Sam Richard’s Civil War Diary: A Chronicle of the Atlanta Home Front; Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863–1865; Sam Watcon’s Company Aytch: All for the Union: The Civil War Diary & Letters of Elisa Hunt Rhode; For Love and Liberty: The Untold Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou and His Famous Love Letter; Sarah Morgan Dawson’s A Confederate Girl’s Diary; Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor; A Journal, Kept by Emma Florence LeConte; The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy; Osborne Oldroyd’s A Soldier’s Story of The Siege At Vicksburg; and Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes.

Civil War Historical Societies

Your quest for information will likely take you to historical societies, which can be excellent repositories of information in their area of specialty. You might want to consult the:

  1. American Civil War Museum, which includes three sites: The White House of the Confederacy, the American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar, both in Richmond, VA, and the American Civil War Museum at Appomattox, VA.
  2. Center for Civil War Photography, which is dedicated to collecting and preserving Civil War-era photographs.
  3. Civil War Round Table: There are many such local and regional groups that meet to discuss Civil War history, including the Civil War Round Table of Chicago, the Civil War Roundtable of Atlanta, and the Los Angeles Civil War Roundtable.
  4. Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, which hosts conferences, seminars, and educational programs on Civil War history.
  5. Lincoln Forum, “An assembly of people who share a deep interest in the life and times of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era.”
  6. National Civil War Association, a reenactment organization that aims to keep history alive “by living it.”
  7. Society of Civil War Historians, a scholarly organization that “seeks to promote the study of the Civil War era and to bring greater coherence to the field by encouraging the integration of social, military, political, and other forms of history.”
  8. Sons of Confederate Veterans, which preserves “the history and legacy of these heroes [Confederate soldiers] so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.”
  9. Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, dedicated to “Preserving the history and legacy of the heroes who fought to save the Union during the Civil War.”
  10. United Daughters of the Confederacy, which strives to “collect and preserve the material necessary for a truthful history of the War Between the States and to protect, preserve, and mark the places made historic by Confederate valor”

Historical Battlefields

Many Civil War writings include at least some mention of battles and battlefields. Reading what’s already been written is a great start, but there’s nothing like standing on a battlefield and tracing the course of action to understand how and why the action played out as it did, and what conditions were like for the soldiers. The National Park Service and the American Battlefield Trust operate, preserve, and/or offer information on a great many Civil War battlefields, including Gettysburg, Manassas/Bull Run, Vicksburg, and Fort Sumter.

Books & Academic Journals

Many excellent authors have already written about the Civil War, and their articles and books can be treasure troves of information and insight. Journals and books include:

  • “The Journal of Military History” – The journal publishes ” scholarly articles on the military history of all eras and geographical areas ”
  • “Civil War History” – Published by Kent State University Press, this is “the leading scholarly journal of the Civil War era in American history. It covers the entire scope of the conflict, from the genesis of the sectional crisis through Reconstruction and beyond, highlighting the ramifications of the war on society.”
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vintage, 1986-1974 (3 volumes).
  • Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • J. Dunne and P. Regan, Senior Editors. The Civil War: A Visual History. DK, 2011.
  • Grant, Ulysses S. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters. The Library of America, 1990
  • The National Archives offers this list of helpful books:
    • Basler, Roy P., ed. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
    • Catton, Bruce. The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961-65.
    • Dornbusch, Charles E. Military Bibliography of the Civil War. 4 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1971-87. A guide to published Union and Confederate unit histories.
    • Hewett, Janet B., et al. Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 51 vols. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1994-97.
    • Long, Everette B. Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861-1865. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
    • Randall, James, and David Donald. Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: Heath, 1961.
    • Sifakis, Stewart. Compendium of the Confederate Armies. 11 vols. New York: Facts on File, 1992-97.
    • Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
    • Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Person-Specific Sources of Information

There are a number of repositories dealing with specific notable people of the era, including:

For Frederic Douglas – You’ll find helpful information at The Library of Congress, which presents Frederick Douglass: A Resource Guide; the Rohbrach Library, which houses the Frederick Douglass Resources: Books, Ebooks, and Other Materials.

For Abraham Lincoln – For manuscripts, books, artifacts, and AV materials, see the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Also, investigate the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

For Jefferson Davis – The Library of Congress offers the Jefferson Davis Papers, which contain “correspondence, articles, speeches, photocopies of land grants, newspaper chippings” and more, “and cover a variety of topics, including admission of the state of California to the Union, Mississippi state politics, Varina Davis’s correspondence from 1889-1905. Also see the Jefferson Davis Papers, 1862-1882 at the Washington and Lee University Library.

For Ulysses S. Grant – See the Library of Congress’s Ulysses S. Grant: A Resource Guide for links to numerous research sites.

For Robert E. Lee – See the Robert E. Lee Papers at the Washington and Lee University Library and the Duke University’s Robert E. Papers.

Specialty Topics

There’s a lot more to writing about the Civil War than battles and generals, politics and economics. Some of the important but often overlooked issues are presented in resources such as these:

American Civil War Surgical Antiques – This site comprises nearly one thousand pages, with quite a number of images, looking at Civil War surgeons, surgical instruments, medicine, medical textbooks, and more.

“What Does a Soldier Eat?” – Prepared by the Tennessee State Museum, this article explains what common soldiers on both sides ate, and includes videos and links for further research.

“Voices of the Civil War: Effect on Families” – Hosted by Brigham Young University, the site contains a sampling of letters written by soldiers to their loved ones back home.

Civil War Recruitment Posters – Hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, this site has images of a small selection of recruitment posters.

Writing About the Civil War?

We hope this list is helpful! It’s not nearly as broad and deep as it needs to be, but it will get you started in your research. For more information on writing about the Civil War or other historical epochs, see “How to Write a History Book” and “12 Ways to Write A History Book.”


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