The American Civil War lasted from April of 1861 until May of 1865, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people on both sides. It was a great test of the fabric of our nation, and its effects have lingered in the national psyche—and in the specifics of national politics—to this very day.
As one of the most studied, debated, analyzed, and mythologized portions of our national history, the Civil War is also bound to be one of the most fictionalized—as you can see in this lineup of historical mysteries that take place during the dark days of the war. Some directly involve the conflict, while in others it is merely a backdrop, or something that happened in the recent past that continues to haunt the protagonists. Regardless, all of the following books use this pivotal moment in American history to examine the darkness of the human heart.
Murder at Manassas
The war has just begun, and a Union officer has been murdered in the wake of the First Battle of Bull Run. The fallen soldier has been branded a deserter, but Southern gambler Harrison Raines knows better. If he wants to clear the dead man’s name, he’ll have to follow the trail of a cold-blooded killer, even as the bullets of the battle continue to fly. To make matters worse, Raines is in love with a British actress, a woman whose own heart belongs to one John Wilkes Booth…
An Acquaintance with Darkness
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination looms large over both the public imagination and the mystery literature of the Civil War, as can be seen in this striking coming-of-age novel. An orphaned 14-year-old girl in Washington, D.C. struggles to solve two mysteries at once. One involves her best friend’s family and their ties to John Wilkes Booth, while the other involves her uncle, a doctor who just might be involved in body snatching…
Murder in the Oval Library
Years before Lincoln’s assassination, a murderer comes within striking distance of the president in this gripping historical mystery that’s set during the early days of the war. As Confederate troops close in on the capitol, a garrison of soldiers are stationed in the Oval Library to guard the president.
When one of the guards is found dead with his throat slashed, catching the killer falls to Lincoln’s trusted advisors, Adam Speed Quinn and Senator Jim Lane. As they play cat-and-mouse with a killer, the clutches of the war close inexorably around them in this “excellent mystery” (Kirkus Reviews).
Past All Dishonor
From the author of Double Indemnity, one of the most famous hardboiled noir stories of all time, comes this tale of a Confederate spy who falls hopelessly in love with a prostitute while on assignment in the West. Set in the hardscrabble town of Virginia City, Nevada, this tale of tortured love—and the lengths one desperate man will go to—has been called a “savage, sensual pursuit of passion” by Kirkus Reviews, while the Saturday Review of Literature observed that “no one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.”
President Lincoln's Secret
In this follow-up to his hit book President Lincoln’s Spy, Steven Wilson once more returns to the tale of Col. Fitz Dunaway and his wife, Asia. The couple must confront a Confederate conspiracy and a cabal of traitors and spies who are putting together a terrifying plot. While we tend to think of spies in terms of the Cold War, Wilson reminds us that espionage on both sides was very much a part of the American Civil War in this gripping romantic thriller.
When Johnny Came Marching Home
Though set far in the past, bestselling author William Heffernan’s haunting tale of a friendship fractured by war—and the chilling murder that follows—is one that remains resonant today. With meticulous historical research, Heffernan brings to life not only the horrors of war, but the bucolic childhoods of the novel’s main characters, and the toll that the war takes on their lives after they’ve come home. Certainly a murder mystery, When Johnny Came Marching Home is also a story of the cost of conflict and the price that soldiers pay, even long after the fighting is over—“a neat tour de force” (Kirkus Reviews).
Conspiracy of Knaves
The so-called Chicago Conspiracy was a real-life plot by Confederate agents and sympathizers to free a number of rebel prisoners held in the Northern city of Chicago. It’s also the crux of this rollicking and fast-paced novel of Civil War espionage from the celebrated author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Dee Brown fictionalizes the real-life exploits of those involved in the Chicago Conspiracy—both those trying to pull it off, and those who set out to thwart it.
The Night Inspector
William Bartholomew was a sniper for the Union Army during the Civil War—an experience that left him physically maimed and emotionally haunted. Now, he has returned to civilian life in Manhattan, where he befriends a writer temporarily working as a night inspector—a man by the name of Herman Melville. As Bartholomew and the rest of the nation attempt to heal, he begins to pursue a mystery in the dark underbelly of the city that may have ties to memories of the war he is trying to leave behind.
A Prayer for the Dying
Bestselling author Chuck Palahnuik likened Stewart O’Nan’s work to “the amazing, unrelenting love child of Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy.” This inescapably dark tale of a plague that strikes the town of Friendship, Wisconsin after the close of the Civil War was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and has been called “a new masterpiece of American literature” (Entertainment Weekly).
Call Each River Jordan
Writing as Owen Parry, Ralph Peters is the four-time winner of the W. Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction, presented by the American Library Association. He is also a retired Army lieutenant colonel and was a longtime expert guest commentator on Fox News until 2018. Here, he paints a stark portrait of the Civil War, as a Union detective crosses enemy lines to investigate the mass murder of 40 slaves whose bodies were left hanging at a crossroads in the South.