The Civil War


A Discussion Project series

  • My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
  • With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Oates
  • Collected Black Women’s Narratives ed. Anthony G. Barthelemy
  • Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate by Eli Evans
  • Portraits of American Women ed G.J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton


These five works of biography and autobiography provide an in-depth, personal view of life during the Civil War era. The experiences of these Americans–women and men, slave and free, Northern and Souther, famous and unsung–illustrate the close connection between individual lives and the larger events we call “history.”

My Bondage and My Freedom is Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography and a literary classic of the American Renaissance. In it, the famous escaped slave and abolitionist leader gives a moving account of his emergence into a life on the mind in freedom. Interweaving his personal story with the political events of the 1850s leading up to the War, Douglass created enduring statement on the meaning of slavery and race in America.

Steven Oates’ With Malice Toward None is a biography of Abraham Lincoln which replaces the historical icon with a complex and far from flawless human being. Oates’s account discusses the Presidential election of 1864, the divisions of opinion in the North, and Lincoln’s views on race and slavery. His frank but compassionate portrait compels us to examine our own images of humanity and greatness.

Collected Black Women’s Narratives contains compelling autobiographical accounts by four women: Nancy Prince, a free Northern black woman who travelled as far as Russia yet experienced racial oppression in New England; Bethany Veney, a slave who preserved her own identity and values with the help of religious faith; Louisa Picquet, an “octoroon slave and concubine,” who sold her life story to help purchase her mother’s freedom; and Susie King Taylor who worked as nurse and teacher for one of the first black regiments in the Union Army.

Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate is a joint biography of Jefferson Davis and the brilliant Jewish intellectual who served as his Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State between 1861 and 1865. Called “the brains of the Confederacy,” Benjamin was immensely influential, in spite of the virulent anti-Semitism of the times. The dramatic events of his personal life are combined with a behind-the-scenes look at Southern strategy and diplomacy and a moving account of the Confederacy’s reaction to defeat.

Portraits of American Women, in its section on abolitionism and the Civil War, presents studies of four diverse and intriguing women: Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis, the First Ladies of the North and South; Charlotte Forten, a black Northern teacher of freedpeople; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Yankee abolitionist who became a leader of the nineteenth-century struggle for women’s rights.