Guts & Glory: The American Civil War


By Ben Thompson

Illustrated by C. M. Butzer

Read by Will Collyer

Read by Brian Delaney

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History comes alive for kids like no textbook can in this epic account of the American Civil War that’s perfect for history buffs and reluctant readers!

From courageous cavalry rides deep into enemy territory to harrowing covert missions undertaken by spies and soldiers, the events of the American Civil War were filled with daring figures and amazing feats. This exhilarating overview covers the biggest battles as well as captivating lesser-known moments to entertain kids with unbelievable (and totally true) tales of one of America’s most fascinating conflicts.

History buff, Civil War reenactor, and popular blogger Ben Thompson uses his extensive knowledge and vivid storytelling style to bring the Civil War to life in this first book in a thrilling new series featuring incredible people, events, and civilizations. Get ready to learn just how awesome history can be!


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of Guts & Glory: The Vikings

Copyright Page

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The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things.… It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.

—Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative

WITH HIS TEETH CLENCHED AND HIS EYES resolutely fixed on the imposing walls of the Confederate fort looming in front of him, Color Sergeant Alexander Campbell of the Seventy-Ninth New York Volunteer Infantry gripped a heavy, nine-foot-tall wooden staff proudly bearing the flag of the United States of America and raced ahead as fast as his legs could carry him, charging through the humid, sun-drenched swamplands of Secessionville, South Carolina, toward the enemy. Somehow ignoring the hail of bullets ripping past his head, Campbell bravely led a sea of blue-coated Union soldiers hurtling through the ankle-deep marsh, their rifled muskets brandishing steel bayonets that glinted menacingly in the sunlight. Even as many of his comrades fell around him, Campbell forged ahead. When he reached the wooden walls of the Rebel fort, Campbell clambered his way up, slugged a defender with a crushing blow from his staff, and planted the bullet-riddled Stars and Stripes on the parapet, screaming for his men to follow him.

Atop the walls, the Confederate defenders of Secessionville rushed to counter the Union breach, battling the Federal onslaught with everything they had available. One fearsome warrior from the First South Carolina Infantry Battalion already had his weapon obliterated by an enemy bullet, but this wasn't about to stop him. He ran up to the parapet, saw a group of Federals charging toward him, and shoved a big log off the ledge, knocking the Yankees back into the swampland below. Suddenly attacked by another Union trooper at the top of the wall, the now unarmed Rebel dodged a bayonet thrust, grabbed his opponent's rifle, ripped it from his hands, and shot him with his own gun.

This Confederate soldier's name was James Campbell. He was Union flag bearer Alexander Campbell's big brother. Two men, related by blood, fighting a life-or-death struggle on opposite sides of the same battle.

How does something like this happen? In the United States, of all places?

Countless volumes and entire chapters of boring textbooks have been devoted to describing the causes of the "American Civil War of Northern Aggression Between the States" down to every single nauseating detail from a day-by-day re-creation of Bleeding Kansas to a description of the type of underwear Abraham Lincoln was wearing at his presidential inauguration ceremony. The short answer is that the war was fought over slavery, but that doesn't quite cover it. In actuality, the vast majority of Confederate troops fought for the South even though they never owned a single slave, and many Union soldiers were ultra-passionate about enlisting and fighting for their cause even though the institution of slavery wasn't formally abolished in the United States until after the war had already been going on for almost three years.

So what the heck was this all about, then?

To say that the events leading up to the presidential election of 1860 were pretty intense would be like saying that swan-diving into an active volcano is kind of a bad idea. Basically, the United States at this time was about as divided as you could get. In the South, wealthy plantation owners utilized millions of black slaves, many of whom were kept under incredibly harsh, unforgivably barbaric conditions, to harvest their tobacco and cotton crops, which were then shipped to the ultra-industrial North for massive profit. The Southern elite were constantly worried that some uppity Yankee politician was going to deprive them of their so-called "right" to exploit free labor for profit, so they made it their mission to expand slavery into the territory the United States gained after its war with Mexico as a means of protecting their plantations. The industrial Northern states, which had already outlawed slavery as cruel and unusual punishment, naturally tried to block this at all costs. The results were intense political tension, a handful of gunfights in border towns, and a whole lot of bad blood between North and South.

All this came to a head in the presidential election of 1860, when the ardently antislavery Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, defeated Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and a couple of other dudes and was elected the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln, who was so hated in the South that he didn't even appear on the ballot in ten states, swept the Northern electoral vote, ultimately receiving 39.8 percent of the national popular vote, and was elected to office.

This was the last straw for the South. Seven states seceded from the Union immediately, forming the Confederate States of America. They seized US forts and arsenals, created their own government, and elected Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis to serve as their president.

This move set the United States spiraling into a firestorm that would rip the country in half and lead to the bloodiest war in American history. Lincoln, determined to keep the Union together, put out a call for volunteers to fight and defend America from these dangerous Rebels who would dare to break it apart. Union newspapers declared death to the traitors, and all across the North, patriots rallied to the Stars and Stripes, eager to preserve the United States as one country, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Well, this call to arms wasn't heeded as well in some of the Southern states, many of which weren't down with fighting a war against their fellow Southerners. As the North prepared for war, four more states refused to raise arms for the Union and seceded, their governments putting out a similar request for men to come to the aid of the South. Southerners—many of them poor farmers who never owned slaves themselves but whose loyalty lay with their home state and not the Federal government—flocked to the Confederate banner and prepared to do battle with an army they perceived as an invading force seeking to unconstitutionally impose its will on the South.

The battle lines had been drawn—twenty-one heavily populated Northern industrial states against eleven rural Southern states. The Union had the manpower, industry, railroads, and infrastructure to outnumber and outproduce the agrarian South, but they would be fighting on enemy soil against a determined foe. The Confederacy had the advantage of fighting on their home turf against an invading army, and had much more experienced generals. They also still held out hope that the great European powers—England and France, both of which depended very heavily on Southern cotton exports to keep their economies running—might come to their aid and help them defeat the US forces and preserve their newfound independence.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina coastal artillery batteries shelled the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, off the coast of Charleston. The Confederates bombed the fort for about a day and a half before it surrendered, the only fatalities being two Union dudes who accidentally blew themselves up after the battle was already over, but everyone got the point and they were pretty much just pumped up that it was finally time to stop talking and start fighting.

The stage was now set for a war that would pit brother against brother and tear the entire country apart.

What happened next would claim more lives than every previous American war combined and redefine the United States of America forever.

The Union included the states of Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, California, and Oregon. Abraham Lincoln was their president. West Virginia and Nevada became states during the course of the Civil War (West Virginia was specifically formed from a portion of Virginia that opted not to secede) and entered on the side of the Union.

Author's Note

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.

—General George S. Patton, US Army, World War II (Patton's grandfather commanded the Twenty-Second Virginia Infantry in the Civil War.)

THE CIVIL WAR IS IN MY BLOOD. I HAVE EIGHT ancestors on my father's side alone who served with Robert E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia, all of them rural, non-slaveholding Virginia farm boys. Of these eight, all of whom enlisted in time to serve in the Battle of First Manassas, three didn't return after setting out on Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg; three more were taken prisoner at Sayler's Creek, and, of those three, one died in prison two months after the war was already over. One was pardoned at Appomattox (his discharge paperwork hangs in my living room); the other was wounded in the head and hand at Gettysburg and didn't make it back into action until the end of the war. My mother's side claims some tangential descent from Joseph E. Johnston that I've never been able to document, but the war is embedded in my genetic code on that side too—my mother's family farm is a landmark on maps of the Battle of Sayler's Creek and is visible in photographs of the battlefield from 1865.

I have studied the Civil War intensely all my life, and in my fifteen years off and on as a Civil War reenactor wearing both Confederate gray and Union blue, I've fought as part of Wheat's Tigers, Forrest's Cavalry, Sheridan's Raiders, and the Army of Northern Virginia, been killed in Pickett's Charge twice, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Sherman's troops at Resaca, been blown up charging Confederate artillery alongside the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts at the Battle of Olustee, and—I kid you not—had a full-blooded Seminole Indian run up out of nowhere and whack me in the head with a rubber tomahawk in front of hundreds of spectators.

This stuff is what I live for.

As a man who has the South in his veins but also loves the United States of America with all his heart, I can understand exactly why men of both sides would fight and die for their respective causes in this war. As such, in writing this book I have attempted to present courageous heroes and cowardly villains from both sides equally, showing each in their full glory without trying to pull any punches whatsoever. In each chapter I have attempted to pick a point of view and run with it full-throttle, concerning myself primarily with highlighting why these men and women fought and what exactly they accomplished, rather than attempting to inject some annoying political statement or any of that garbage. These are the stories. I encourage you to dig deeper, read the primary sources, and draw your own conclusions.

These stories are presented in chronological order, from the war's first battle to its last. Rather than settling on just the "greatest hits," I've tried to find a good mix of different people, battles, and events, each with their own feel and flavor, to show exactly how diverse this war could be, and tie them all together into a narrative that brings the reader along for the ups and downs of the darkest, bloodiest, and most defining moment in American history.

First Blood

The First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas)

Our blood was on fire. Life was valueless. The boys fired one volley, then rushed upon the foe with clubbed rifles beating down their guard; then they closed upon them with their knives, "Greek had met Greek," the tug of war had come.… [It] did not seem as though men were fighting… [but as if there] were devils mingling in the conflict, cursing, yelling, cutting, and shrieking.

—Private Robert Richie, First Louisiana Special Battalion

July 21, 1861 Manassas, Virginia

ON THE MORNING OF JULY 21, 1861, THE Union army had one thing and one thing only on its mind—the complete destruction of all Southern forces and a permanent end to the Rebellion. With a battle cry of "Forward to Richmond!" thirty-five thousand tough-as-nails volunteer soldiers of the US Army marched to the battlefield at Manassas Junction, Virginia, a mere twenty miles from Washington, DC, seeking an epic one-day showdown that would determine the fate of the country forever. Arrayed against them were a mere twenty thousand Southerners—a ragtag band of rebellious farm boys who certainly couldn't stand toe-to-toe with the full might of the US military. If they could crush this motley assortment of traitors like bugs, nothing stood between the Federal army and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and a quick end to the Civil War.

The Union had the manpower. They had the weapons and equipment. And they were on the offensive. They were so confident of victory that regular folks from the North packed picnic baskets and walked along behind the Union army so that they could eat lunch and have some pleasant conversation with their friends while they watched the Rebellion stamped out before them in one simple afternoon of work.

Even though he knew most soldiers on both sides were fighting in their first battle, the Northern commander, General Irvin McDowell, had a plan that would almost certainly catch the Rebels with their pants down. He'd deployed most of his army along the banks of Bull Run Creek, the river that surrounded the train depot at Manassas Junction, right next to a large stone bridge. The Confederates, looking for any advantage they could get, lined up all their guys on the opposite side of the bridge so they could shoot at the Union when they tried to cross.

Except the Union didn't try to cross there. Instead, they took twenty thousand of their men, snuck them through the woods, crossed Bull Run Creek a mile upstream without the Confederates realizing it, and then came running out of the forest from the side the Rebels least expected it, hollering in New England accents and waving their bayonets around like they meant it.

It was a brilliant plan. Or it would have been, if it hadn't been for one thing: They ran into the First Louisiana Special Battalion—the most infamous unit in the Confederate army.

Recruited in the seediest prisons and docks of New Orleans by a Rebel army desperate for manpower, the 415 criminals, thieves, and wharf rats of the First Louisiana Special Battalion had arrived at Manassas Junction a few weeks earlier. When they'd shown up, many of them had to be carried off the train because they'd been bound and gagged during the ride because of disorderly conduct. The First then proceeded to start a drunken brawl in Lynchburg, Virginia, fistfight a company from the Twenty-First Georgia Infantry in a dispute over a stolen whiskey bottle, and then storm the Confederate stockade with torches and muskets in the middle of the night to break out a couple of their men who had been arrested and were awaiting their court-martials.

Oh yeah, and every man in the unit was packing a twelve-inch bowie knife that basically resembled a hillbilly machete. As the Union troops approached, the First Louisiana drew their knives, waved them over their heads, growled like animals, and chanted, "Gumbo, gumbo, Yankee gumbo!"

Under the command of thirty-five-year-old Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, a gigantic, six-foot-four, 275-pound, larger-than-life professional mercenary with sixteen years of experience fighting in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Italy, and a half-dozen other places across the world, this unit of knife-wielding convicts (appropriately nicknamed Wheat's Tigers) wasn't about to turn around and run home crying to their prison cells just because they were being attacked by a force that outnumbered them about a hundred to one. They were going to hold the line as long as it would possibly take for the Rebels to reorganize and prepare their defenses.

The first troops up were 5,500 men from the Seventy-First New York and the Second Rhode Island, two full-strength regiments of volunteer infantry under the command of General Ambrose Burnside.

Burnside, a former tailor whose facial hair was so intense that the word sideburns was created to describe his glorious muttonchops, ordered his men to charge up Matthew's Hill, destroy the Tigers, turn the Confederate flank, and end this war with one glorious attack that would be told by history books forever. Behind him were thirteen thousand Federal troops who had no intention of stopping until they'd torn the Rebel flag off the Confederate capitol building in Richmond and thrown it into a pit of red-hot magma.

Major Wheat calmly ordered his rowdy Tigers to fall back to the reverse slope of Matthew's Hill, find some cover, and prepare for the fight of their lives.

The moment that the Union troops arrived on the summit of the hill, the Tigers unleashed a huge volley that rocked the Federal lines. The Union soldiers, still trying to bring their artillery up to the battlefront, returned fire as best they could, but they were easy targets at the top of the hill as they shot down at men who were hidden behind cover.

For the next hour the two sides exchanged gunfire, hurling bullets into a fog of gun smoke that limited visibility to about fifty yards, as Wheat's Tigers somehow managed to hold back a full brigade of Burnside's troops for a ridiculous amount of time, considering how lopsided the numbers were. Their courageous struggle bought time for the rest of the Confederate forces to redeploy in a defensive position along Henry House Hill—the next ridge behind Matthew's Hill—but before long things were starting to look bad for the Tigers. The Rhode Islanders had brought up the full might of their artillery, and as cannonballs rained onto Wheat's forces, they started taking heavy casualties.

Then, suddenly, an earth-churning cannonball explosion sent a huge chunk of shrapnel ripping through Major Wheat's lungs, taking the big man to the ground with a sickening thud. His men, confident that they'd held the line as long as they possibly could, wrapped their commander in the unit's flag and started to fall back toward Henry House Hill. When he was examined by a doctor moments later, the medic somberly informed Wheat that "there is no instance on record of recovery from this type of wound." Wheat responded, "Then I will put my case on record.… I don't feel like dying just yet."

He lived. He'd even see the battlefield once again but would be mortally wounded at Gaines' Mill a year later.

Now, in most cases, this would be the end of the story. Wheat's Tigers put up a great fight, gave the Yankees everything they had, held off the enemy's varsity team for over an hour, and now, thanks to the loss of their commanding officer, were in full retreat.

As they approached Henry House Hill, however, the Tigers saw something that changed their minds and renewed their will to fight.

Standing defiantly atop the hill was General Thomas J. Jackson, a professor of philosophy and artillery tactics at the Virginia Military Institute. Jackson had moved to this position while the Tigers held back Burnside's men, and now he stood there in the midst of all the chaos around him, ordering his assembled Virginia regiments to open fire on anything in a blue uniform.

It was at this point that one Confederate general shouted, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally around the Virginians!"

From that point on, Jackson would be known by the incredibly awesome-sounding nickname Stonewall Jackson. This won't be the last you'll hear of him.

The Tigers, inspired by Jackson's bravery and still eager for Yankee blood, fell in line with the Virginians atop Henry House Hill and continued their fight. The Union forces under Burnside pressed on, eager to take the hill and complete their virulent assault on the Confederate flank, but Stonewall refused to give an inch of ground, his men blasting at the "blue bellies" with everything in their arsenal despite having their lines brutally hammered by Union infantry and cannons. The stouthearted stand of Stonewall and the Tigers stopped the Union attack in its tracks.

Then, out of nowhere, Jackson ordered his men to do the one thing the Union least expected.


With a loud, terrifying, earsplitting shriek that would soon be infamously known as the "Rebel yell," the Fourth and Thirty-Third Virginia Infantry Regiments charged ahead, bayonets at the ready. Upon seeing this, Captain Alex White, the acting commander of Wheat's Tigers now that Wheat himself was wounded, ordered his already exhausted men to follow suit and charge the Union artillery positions. White was struck by a bullet almost immediately upon leading the attack, but as he lay there bleeding he shouted something I'm not allowed to print here, but that basically amounts to "They'll never take us alive, boys—go get 'em!"

The four-hundred-something surviving men of Wheat's Tigers grabbed their rifles and charged the Union lines. When they got close enough, they drew their bowie knives and hurled themselves at the Federal troops, hacking and stabbing with knives and swinging their rifles like baseball bats.

The bold attack was a raging success. The Confederates captured the Union artillery positions, turned the Yankee cannons around, and fired double loads of canister shot point-blank into the Union infantry, blasting their front lines with a shotgun shell of cannonballs. It wasn't long before the Union army was in full retreat, knocking over the civilian spectators and stepping on their picnic baskets as they hurried back to Washington.

The first major battle of the Civil War had ended. And it was becoming increasingly obvious to all parties involved that this war wasn't going to be over as quickly as everyone had expected.

Landing of the American forces under General Winfield Scott at Veracruz, March 9, 1847

Nineteenth-century warfare was very, very different from the way modern wars are fought. There was very little hiding behind cover, no circle-strafing, and no calling in air strikes from military drones or AC-130s.… This was man against man, face-to-face, hardcore stuff—old-school-style warfare with guns. Instead of taking cover and spreading out and hiding behind things like some kind of wimp, real men would stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in two ranks, and when their commander shouted "Forward, march!" they'd stand tall and walk straight ahead into enemy bullets and cannon fire.


  • Praise for Guts & Glory: The American Civil War:

A 2015 International Literacy Association Teachers' Choice
A 2015 National Parenting Publications Silver Winner
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
  • "The book's greatest strength is its colloquial storytelling.... Thompson's passion for his subject is infectious.... An easy, breezy series opener that should help create a few new history buffs."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Action-packed.... Thompson adopts an urgent and sometimes humorous tone that conveys infectious enthusiasm.... A rousing introduction to this defining conflict that makes the history appealing and relatable." —Publishers Weekly
  • "Thompson displays a solid knowledge of the Civil War.... He ably covers major battles, campaigns, and figures...mixing informational passages and fact boxes with colorful action sequences."—School Library Journal
  • "An entertaining overview.... What brings these events to life, particularly for reluctant readers, is Thompson's spirited, conversational narration.... Should keep students engaged."
  • Praise for Guts & Glory: The American Revolution:

    "Thompson's books are a meaty delight. Digestible chapters are packed with info, one-page bios hit the highlights of their subject's lives, and sidebars full of interesting tidbits are all part of the appeal of the nonfiction Guts & Glory series.... A very satisfying read that even adults will find useful."
  • On Sale
    Oct 28, 2014
    Hachette Audio

    Ben Thompson

    About the Author

    Ben Thompson is the author of Guts & Glory: The American Civil War, Guts & Glory: The Vikings, Guts & Glory: World War II, and Guts & Glory: The American Revolution. For more than ten years, he has been producing humorous, history-related material, including articles for publications such as Military Times and for organizations like the American Mustache Institute. Ben is named after Benjamin Franklin, but this hasn’t bestowed him with any supernatural knowledge of the American Revolution. He had to research it the old-fashioned way. He invites you to visit his website at

    Learn more about this author