“The Most Written-About War in History”:
Civil War Themes in Fact and Fiction

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Battles for the Union
(Dustin, Gilman, 1878)

Although it amounts to only a fraction of American history in terms of years, the Civil War is largely responsible for defining the nation as we know it–and for creating a plethora of literature in numerous genres. In fact, some have called it the most written-about war in history.

The reasons that the Civil War has resulted in such a large and varied body of work are numerous. One is that it was such a momentous occasion–composed of so many different important figures, places, and events–that historians have penned academic works on nearly every conceivable facet. Another is that many who lived during the war era have produced personal narratives of their experiences.

However, historian Jim Cullen points out that most of the American public has been exposed to the Civil War not through academic work but through popular culture. Americans continue to be moved by the romanticism of the era, absorbing the Civil War via motion pictures and television mini-series. During the publishers’ bindings era, the war served as the basis for hundred of novels, poems, songs, humorous writings, and children’s stories.

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The Navy in the Civil War
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883)

Arguably, factors leading up to the Civil War were in place by the turn of the 19th century, and the chasm between North and South grew between 1800 and 1860. Conflict came to a head when the 1860 Presidential election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln spurred several southern states to secede. The Confederate States of America organized under its own Constitution and elected its own officials, including President Jefferson Davis. War between the Union and Confederacy officially began at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861.

Between Fort Sumter and the capture of Davis in Georgia on 10 May 1865, soldiers from nearly 7,000 Union and Confederate regiments fought more than 300 battles. Therefore, it is not surprising that military histories make up a majority of the Civil War literature published between 1860 and 1930.

Even these works encompass a variety of topics. Many histories of entire military branches and specific regiments exist. Major battles and campaigns are chronicled, as well as experiences in military prisons and hospitals. A great many biographies and personal narratives detail the stories of individual soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

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The Lives and Campaigns of Grant and Lee
(Star Publishing, 1895)

Two of the best covered figures in Civil War history are Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The son of a Revolutionary War hero, Lee was a career army officer who commanded all Confederate armies as general-in-chief. Grant, who later became the 18th President of the United States, served as general-in-chief of the Union army. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865, Grant penned the terms of surrender so as to prevent trials for treason.

The politics behind the Civil War have received treatment as well. The two sides’ respective presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and their roles in the war have been the subjects of many books. Many historians also have covered topics such as abolition and slavery.

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A Captured Santa Claus
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905)

Fictionalized accounts of wartime began to appear soon after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter. Contemporaries swept up in the romanticism of war produced numerous novels that integrated Civil War themes such as battles, espionage, and love affairs between soldiers and various women. Later authors dug into historical facts to support their dramatizations of battles and the hardships faced by soldiers’ families or other civilians living under conditions of war.

Although the names, places, and events are largely fabricated, Civil War fiction enables readers to get a sense for the time. Therefore, many stories have been written to teach children about the war, including one called “A Captured Santa Claus”

Because soldiers and their families are responsible for much of the fictional work that appeared during and shortly after the war, readers also can get a sense for the individuals who endured the crisis. Literary scholars have suggested that the poetry, songs, and short stories of the time reflect the thoughts and emotions of the men who faced each other on the battle field, as well as those who waited for them at home.

Despite the solemn subject, Civil War themes found their way into humorous works as well. This was particularly true in the South, which lost the most over the course of the conflict. Some scholars posit that this work follows a time-honored tradition of converting true experiences via exaggeration, boastfulness, and whimsy. Others point out that satire was a popular genre for the treatment of all subjects, particularly politics, during the 19th century.

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The Blue and the Gray and Other Poems and Songs
(McQuiddy, 1903)

 

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The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion
(National Publishing, 1866)
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At Gettysburg; or, What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle
(W.L. Borland, 1889)
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The Claybornes: A Romance of the Civil War
(Houghton Mifflin , 1902)

Search the PBO database for books about the Civil War

More on the Civil War on the PBO site

Confederate Imprints

Abraham Lincoln

Heroes of the "Lost Cause"

Civil War Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Civil War literature, 4-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Guideline for Book Reports: Word document or PDF file

Civil War Book List for Young Adults: Excel Spreadsheet

Related Online Resources

The Civil War (PBS):
http://www.pbs.org/civilwar/war/

Civil War Treasures from the New York Historical Society (Library of Congress):
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpcoop/nhihtml/cwnyhshome.html

Harper's Weekly: A Sampler of Civil War Literature:
http://www.civilwarliterature.com/

The History Place: U.S. Civil War:
http://www.historyplace.com/civilwar/

Library of Southern Literature: Civil War in Literature (University of North Carolina):
http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/civilwar.html

National Geographic: Civil War Edition:
http://seabed.nationalgeographic.com/maps/civilwar/index.html?

Poetry and Music of the War Between the States:
http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/

Stories of the Civil War (National Park Service Civil War Institute):
http://www.civilwar.nps.gov/cwss/manassas/index.htm

"We'll Sing to Abe Our Song!": Sheet Music about Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Civil War:
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/scsmhtml/scsmhome.html

Selected Readings

Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Cullen, Jim. The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Hall, Wade. Reflections of the Civil War in Southern Humor. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962.

Madden, David, and Peggy Bach. Classics of Civil War Fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississipi, 1991.

Menendez, Albert J. Civil War Novels: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1986.

Sweet, Timothy. Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

                       
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