At the review to day I was thrown from my horse by foolishly attempting to read a newspaper, the rattling of which frightened him. I had the left side of my face skinned slightly & my knee bruised. I will be well again in a day or two.
Major Levi Bird Duff’s mishap shows how avidly many Civil War soldiers read. The literacy rate in mid-19th century Northern America was high: 90% for the Union and 70% for the free male population of the Confederacy.  Many soldiers had at least rudimentary schooling and most officers were quite well-eductated.
What did they read? Soldiers’ favorite reading material certainly were letters from home. Regular correspondence with wives, family and relatives played an important part in maintaining a link to the home front, expressing, forming and discussing political and ideological views and, most important of all, upholding morale. Union soldiers probably wrote more than a million letters per month and a well-organised postal system made it possible to receive as many from home. Soldiers treasured these letters and often kept them close by, reading and re-reading them whenever they felt lonely. 
Newspapers were also very popular. The Union army negotiated a franchise with a news agency which distributed newspapers to the army for a nickel per copy.  Pickets sometimes exchanged newspapers between the lines and studiously read and discussed the enemies’ reports. Some regiments even produced their own papers, using field presses or commandeered publishers’ presses.
Soldiers also devoured books. There was an astonishing variety of sources for books in the field: sutlers sold them, family members sent them and religious societies gave them away for free or circulated them through libraries. Some “foraged” for books and stole them from occupied houses.
Books were read for a variety of reasons. Some soldiers studied military theory and history to improve their leadership skills, others read religious tracts to find guidance and solace. Many read novels to whittle away the hours and, at least for a couple of hourse, escape the harsh world they inhabited. Reading for pleasure had been frowned upon before the war as it was seen as a waste of time, and some soldiers kept away from light reading material and preferred reading for self-improvement. But the monotony and boredom of camp life tended to make any book attractive, especially to soldiers who abhorred other, more raucious ways to spend the time, such as playing cards or drinking alcohol.
In their letters and diaries, soldiers sometimes mention the books they read. Some of those are well-known and still considered classics, while others are obscure today and no longer read. In a lose series of short blog articles, I want to shed some light on the books Civil War soldiers read. Each article will present a quote from a letter, diary or memoir, a portait of the reader and then a short characterisation of the book he read. This is in no means intended to give a representative sample of Civil War readings – my selection is based on my own eclectic reading and on whatever arouses my curiosity. But I hope it will offer an impression of the variety of Civil War readings.
 Helmreich, Jonathan E. (ed.): To Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac. The Civil War letters of Levi Bird Duff, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. 2009, p. 120.
 Kaser, David: Books and Libraries in Camp and Battle. The Civil War Experience. Greenwood Press: Westport, Conneticut 1984, p. 3.
 Delahanty, Ian: “Soldiers’ Diaries and Letters,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, online at https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/soldiers-diaries-and-letters.html. Levi Duff kept the letters from his wife in a special black oil- cloth toilet kit she made for him, cf. Helmreich (ed.): To Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac, p. 1.
 Kaser: Books and Libraries, p. 78.