This may be a popular choice, but my pick is definitely The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. When I first read the novel in high school, it interested me in the Civil War as never before, and inspired me to take a class on the “War Between the States” and visit Gettysburg. Shaara managed to make what could have been a very stodgy, factoid-filled recounting come to life, and I defy anyone to come away from this novel without feeling moved by the characters, all real people who lived and died in America’s history.
Perhaps the greatest thing Shaara does with this novel is enabling the reader to see both sides of the conflict, creating nuanced and complex renditions of his characters both Union and Confederate. Any schoolchild with an internet connection can look up the bare-bones facts of the battle of Gettysburg, but it takes a writer of real skill to make those bones form a pattern and, eventually, a living, breathing human being. Characters like Longstreet, Lee, and the fascinating Chamberlain, spring to life on the page.
It’s easy to vilify the rebels a hundred years in the future, but Shaara illuminates their humanity and forces one to consider their views. It’s perhaps equally easy to glorify war, and Shaara never does that, focusing instead on conversations, inner monologues, and even friendships across battle-lines to paint a picture of a country pushed to war and split in two by its own refusal to see a larger worldview.