I’ve probably recommended Robert Leckie more often than any other writer when it comes to making war accessible. IRL he was a WW2 soldier in the Pacific and he was a character in the HBO miniseries The Pacific; afterwards he wrote very good 1-volume treatments of every war in which the U.S. was involved. The four I’d recommend most are:
The Revolution: George Washington’s War
War of 1812: The War Nobody Won
The Civil War: None Died in Vain
World War II: Delivered From Evil
He’s not scholarly- there’s not a lot of new research here- but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. (I’m probably nowhere near as snobbish as I should be when it comes to historians: I like historians who are accurate and know how to write.) His style is that of a very good, personable, knowledgeable history professor giving a survey course. One thing that I particularly like about him is how much biographical information he incorporates into each of his books- he gives interesting bios of not just the biggies (Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR) but a lot of the second tier players as well. He’s an excellent intro into the era.
Most of his stuff is probably out of print, but it’s easy to find in libraries and on half.com and other used book sites for a reasonable amount.
Of course you can go into as much detail as you would possibly want: I was looking at a book on Civil War era veterinary medicine the other night, and pretty much any battle of any significance will have no shortage of 800 page books dedicated just to it, but good popular historians like Leckie provide the hatrack on which to hang the rest.
I would actually recommend against reading most of the newer books on the Civil War from the southern perspective as there is a nasty new movement of neo-Confederates (and not all of them are southern) and some of the books actually look good and sound interesting, and if you haven’t read much on the era you won’t really catch a lot of the half-truths and total shite.
However, if you’ve never read the novel Gone With the Wind, don’t judge it just by the movie. I love the movie but it’s a combination of romantic potboiler and Hollywood over-the-top mythology (and again, I love the movie), while the novel is great as historical fiction, scaled down a bit from the impossible mansions of the film into a very isolated nouveau riche arrogance of 1861 Georgia. Yes, it’s mostly from the vantage point of a rich selfish white girl who (like most of her contemporaries north and south) never really saw much wrong with slavery, but some of the depictions of the desolation and terror after the war are in the “I don’t care who you are, that’s anything but rich white girl problems”.
If you haven’t read the Young Adult novel Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, it’s another “thumbs way up” and in a way it’s the anti-Gone With the Wind in that it’s a short read and the main character is a poor white Yankee boy (Illinois). Hunt’s main character, Jethro Creighton, was based on her grandfather who she knew well when she was a child, and even though Jethro is too young to go to war (he has relatives who enlist on both sides) it also takes you to a time and place and shows the passions of the war in a small Illinois town.
There are probably about two Civil War novels for every American who lived through it, but most are dreck and of the cream very few are “Emmy Slattery” novels (i.e. the Civil War from the perspective of a realistic low class southerner). Today you get into the political correctness problem where characters are just ridiculously enlightened when it comes to race and gender and social class, and you’ve always had the problem of people wanting to read about Greek columns and hoop skirts instead of plows and subsistence living. That’s why one thing I love about Hunt is her great job at was conveying the life of a poor white farmer, which would be similar both north and south and is amazingly seldom caught in novels considering that the vast majority of the free nation were poor white farmers: Jethro has cravings for green vegetables, for example, and has only vague memories of his oldest sisters who married and moved away when he was little [being illiterate they don’t write and this is a time when a pleasure visit to see relatives who lived 100 miles away was just not feasible for most people. (Abraham Lincoln went years at a time without seeing his father and stepmother, and while part of it was he didn’t like his father [though he did his stepmother] much of it was the imposition on time- it not only took days to go that far out of the way but it was expensive and uncomfortable.)
I’m sorry, what was the question?