This article is from the U.S. Civil War FAQ, by Justin M. Sanders firstname.lastname@example.org with numerous contributions by others.
James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. 1988.
A comprehensive history of the United States from about 1845 until
Appomattox. About 40% of the book is on the prewar years, the rest on the
war. This book is up to date, reflects most (though not all) of the
historical research on the war, and is a single volume which is well
written, easy to read, and accessible to the non-historian. It also has an
excellent bibliographic note at the end which refers to most of the
scholarly literature on issues relating to the war. If you read only one
book on the war, this one should probably be it. Probably the work most
frequently cited in alt.war.civil.usa.
Bruce Catton, The Centennial History of the Civil War. New York, Doubleday
Books, 1963. Three volumes: published separately as "The Coming Fury,"
"Terrible Swift Sword," and "Never Call Retreat."
One of the best written histories of the war, by a man associated
primarily with the Union side of the war. This series, however, presents
equal coverage of both sides of the war. First volume covers prewar
material through First Bull Run, second volume Bull Run to Antietam, third
volume the rest of the war.
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative. New York, 1958. 3 volumes.
Published separately as "Fort Sumter to Perryville," "Fredricksburg to
Meridian," and "Red River to Appomattox."
A history of the War, focusing on the history of the Confederacy more
than on Union operations. Until McPherson's book, the most popularly read
history of the War.
Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel, editors. Battles and Leaders of the
Civil War. 4 volumes. 1887. Reprinted 1959.
A series of articles on the various battles of the Civil War, written
by generals from both sides who had fought in the battles. A troublesome
book: like most firsthand sources, it tends to be inaccurate on the
details, especially of the opponent's actions, and also tends to reflect
the author's needs to justify himself more than what actually happened.
However, an excellent, and fairly comprehensive, collection of first-hand
descriptions of the battles by the men who fought them.
Alan Nevins, The Ordeal of the Union. 8 volumes. 1949-1971. Also published
as three shorter series: volumes 1-2 as "The Ordeal for the Union,"
volumes 3-4 as "The Emergence of Lincoln," volumes 5-8 as "The War for the
Covers much the same ground as McPherson but in much more detail.
Focuses at least as much on the political, strategic, and logistical side
of the fighting as on the battles and tactics. Covers the Union in more
detail than the Confederacy but both sides are described.
Ken Burns, The Civil War.
An 11 hour motion picture documenting the war. First shown on PBS and
highly acclaimed, now available from Time Life Video on 9 VHS tapes. There
is also a companion book, "The Civil War: An Illustrated History" which
you can get.