American History Reading List

Our son was being interviewed for collegeĀ and happened to mention that his father was a cartographer and Civil War map historian. The interviewer was a young guy just entering on a professional career and he had a bit of time on his hands for the first time since graduate school began. He had an interest in American history and asked me if I could make some suggestions about things to read. I told him I’d sit down and come up with a reading list of ten books to start with. This is what I sent him…

This was hard! I restricted myself to American history and being essentially military history oriented, esp. Civil War, the list is a bit top heavy with those topics. These are all books that I loved to read, have read more than once, and plan to live long enough to read again.There is no ranking within the list itself. So here goes:

  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan (popular but gripping account of D-Day)
  • Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell (a rambling but fascinating history of George Armstrong Custer)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Conrad Black (best biography of our most interesting 20th C. president)
  • Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald (a wonderful, almost moment by moment account of a WW2 rifle company in Europe. It’s like riding with them in a Jeep. It’s not blood and gore and guts. It’s just an absorbing account of what it was like to be there)
  • Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins (ditto as above but a Confederate account of the Civil War)
  • Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (there are several but this is the best recent one volume biography of Lincoln)
  • Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (he was dying of throat cancer and his family was destitute when Grant began to write. He finished the book and died three days later. It became the best-selling book of the 19th Century and earned $400,000 in royalties in those days…probably the equivalent of $100,000,000 now. Quite a guy, quite a book. If you’re ever discouraged about things, read this!)
  • Lincoln Finds A General by Kenneth P. Williams (four volumes but my favorite of all my Civil War books – it’s largely about Grant and the western theater of the War. This is a great set to look for in used book stores. It was published between 1949 and 1956)
  • Battle Cry of Freedom by James M.McPherson (the best single volume account of the Civil War. It’s part of a series by various authors in the Oxford U. Press’s Oxford History of the U.S. They’re all pretty good and they’re appearing in no particular chronological order)
  • The Story of the Great March by George Ward Nichols (1865 with a 1972 reprint – what it was like to be on Sherman’s staff on the March to the Sea)
There are two other books that I have to mention though they don’t fit any of the criterion I set up for this list. One is a biography, The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding. I can’t explain my attraction to it but every time I notice it on the shelf I have to resist the urge to pick it up and read it. And I’m not a particular Thoreau fan.
The other is a trilogy, the overall title being The Sword of Honor, by Evelyn Waugh, the 20th Century English novelist. It’s a fictionalized account of his own service in WW2 and I have the same problem with this book as with the Thoreau.
Give me the word and I’ll pass along some English history recommendations.
As a final recommendation, when you’re done with all of the above, see Maps and Map makers of the Civil War (Abrams 1999) by Earl B. McElfresh.

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