The Peculiar Institution
A REVIEW OF: BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM, BY JAMES MCPHERSON
If you only read one book about the American Civil War this is it! Everything is covered beginning with the intractable differences that led to the disaster and ending with a clear picture of the aftermath. But this is not a boring survey or dry recitation of facts. It's an entertaining and thought-provoking read that will engage your attention from beginning to end.
I have read a lot of American history but until this book, never really understood to what extent the Civil War was a rebellion, not by the South against the North, but the reverse. Battle Cry of Freedom explains that the impetus for the blood-letting came from the growing revulsion of decent people, primarily but not exclusively of the North, against slavery. These Americans elected Abraham Lincoln as president.
Recognizing that the expansion of slavery was now impossible in the United States, and that without it their peculiar institution would wither and die, the slaveocracy concluded to found their own country. When the border states declined to join them, the Confederates started the war in order to draw the wavering slave states in. No other conclusion is possible after reading McPherson's masterful work. Upon reflection just about every other book I have read on the war aligns with this view.
So this one volume will either provide all you want to know about the Civil War era, or better yet stimulate your interest in the subject and give you a framework that will provide context for further reading.