I started being a student of the war as a result of taking a university class on the Civil War. I lucked into taking what I think is the best early, if not first, step. I think it’s necessary to take a class because someone has organized the material into a framework that makes it easier to follow the material, gives you an idea of where to go in your reading, and lets you know what they, at least, consider important. If you can, take a class at a university taught by a professor. If you can’t, there are other options, such as a community college, or even an online class. The Teaching Company has DVDs of lectures by Gary Gallagher, who is an outstanding scholar and an excellent speaker. This is an excellent way to get the basics.