The best historical surveys of the antebellum era are provided in two volumes of the Oxford History of the United States: Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). However, it is helpful to read Howe’s volume alongside Charles G. Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), and John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, vol. 1, Commerce and Compromise, 1820–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Likewise, it is best to read McPherson’s chapters on late antebellum sectionalism and the secession crisis (chapters 1–10) in conjunction with Roy Franklin Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1948); J. G. Randall and David Herbert Donald, Civil War and Reconstruction, 2nd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1969), chapters 1–9; Peter J. Parish, The American Civil War (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975), chapters 1–4; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1846–1861, completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); Kenneth M. Stampp, The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005); and John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, vol. 2, The Coming of the Civil War, 1850–1861 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Every historian of the Civil War era should do substantial reading in the eight gracefully written, deeply researched, and often wise volumes by Allan Nevins known collectively as The Ordeal of the Union (New York: Scribner’s, 1947–71), the final two volumes published in the year of his death. Every student of the secession crisis must read, at a minimum, chapter 15, “Lincoln Takes the Helm,” in The Emergence of Lincoln, vol. 2, Prologue to Civil War, 1859–1861 (1950). This chapter is also included in Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: Selected Chapters, edited and introduction by E. B. Long (New York: Scribner’s, 1971), which provided me with my initial introduction to Nevins’s work.
For insights into how postbellum Americans tried to make sense of the Civil War years, the essential books are Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1862–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001); Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); and Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Reenslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2008–9).