Reccomend Excellent U.S. History Books

I just got back from DC and my time visiting the memorials kind of made me hyper aware of how generally ignorant I am about American History. I want to learn more. Particularly I am interested in our most defining wars - the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam.

One more speciific interest I have is viewing the Civil War from the perspective of the South. For example, I always assumed that everybody today thinks Lincoln is one of the best presidents ever, but it occurred to me that the south has a very different history with him than the north. How would the south today write the story of the Civil War?

I’m also curious in learning about the rationale behind tactical decisions that were made, the way politics influenced everything, and generally just understanding more about the mechanisms that led to the rise and defeat of powers. What was the experience like for the soldiers of these wars?

I’m really open to anything, even historical fiction. So if you’ve got something in mind for me, please let me know.

Paging Sampiro

“the south today”? Do you mean the few remaining old Confederates who blather on about The War of Northern Aggression? Or educated Southerners–many of whom are black?

Until the serious scholars arrive (& I’ll be reading their recommendations), have you seen the Ken Burns series, The Civil War? It’s streaming on Netflix & does give a variety of viewpoints…

Sections of A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, might be up your alley.

One thing that you might enjoy if you are trying to understand the historical mindset and experiences is to look at old newspapers, particularly for the Civil War, WWI and WWII. You can get a sense of how people were responding to the developments of the war and how newspapers in different cities were writing about the events shaping the war. When I was about 12 I received a collection of correspondence between a young man serving in the military during WWII and his family back home. Nothing beats that in terms of getting the soldier perspective. There are various collections that have these types of letters (many online and many in historical societies). One book that really stands out to me as helping explain how we got to the Civil War is the well-known Battle Cry for Freedom by James McPherson. Agree with the Ken Burns documentary suggestion, although I am not much of a TV watcher, so I personally find them tedious.

In my mind the definitive and most readable account of the Civil War is Shelby Foote’s Civil War Narrative, I have taken it on twice.

Two books I would recommend immediately are Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettyburg: The Words That Remade America and John Keegan’s Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America. Superb, thought-provoking scholarship but still very enjoyable reading.

The late Shelby Foote was a distinguished Southern historian of the Civil War. I would heartily recommend him in addition to Ken Burns.

The late Stephen E. Ambrose published a number of oral histories of distinguished WWII units, particularly Band of Brothers (the TV series was very true to the book) and Wild Blue.

I read John Toland’s Infamy last winter. It deals with the events leading up to Pearl Harbor and Washington’s attempts to contain the scandals that ensued.

There are a number of excellent biographies of Adolf Hitler, if you’re interested in the Third Reich: the works of Toland, Bullock, Fest, and Kershaw come immediately to mind. Kershaw in particular describes in great depth how Nazi Germany actually functioned.

I have a particular interest in WWII in the air, so I’d recommend any of the books by the likes of Edward Jablonski or Martin Caidin.

Read Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day for the definitive work on D-Day.

I used to have a book on the invasions of Tarawa and Peleliu in the Pacific that was published during the war, but unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the author (a war correspondent who went ashore with the Marines). You might be able to find a copy if you look through the old paperback section of your local bookstore.

James McGovern’s Crossbow and Overcast describes the German secret weapons program and Allied attempts to stop it.

Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 should also be on your list.

J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is his semi-autobiographical novel of what it was like to be an enemy alien in Japanese-held China during WWII. A work of fiction, but well worth reading.

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and The Zimmermann Telegram should get you started on WWI.

Also, I highly recommend you watch the CBS documentary series narrated by Robert Ryan for the 50th anniversary of WWI. If you can’t find it on video or DVD, it can be seen on YouTube. It’s both dramatic and fascinating.

The above should keep you busy for a while, I’d think! :slight_smile:

Another work of fiction worth reading is Robert Harris’s Enigma, about the code breakers who worked at Bletchley Park during WWII. (The book is better than the HBO miniseries.)

Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far is an account of the botched Operation Market-Garden in 1944.

By ‘‘the south today’’ I’m interested in hearing multiple viewpoints from both historians and laypersons. I also would like to get a sense of what the mainstream narrative is, if such a thing exists.

ETA: Thanks for the recommendations. They all sound wonderful.

Well it’s not about the wars you specify, but I recommend Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars. It provides some interesting insights on the Indian removal, including the context necessary to understand why it happened. (The removal just seems bafflingly evil from our modern perspective. This book helps understand the contemporary perspectives on the issue.) It also highlights some of the insecurities of the young nation, particularly the nagging worries about European intrusions in North America.

(Also, if anybody mentions James Loewen in this thread, please disregard. His work is riddled with exaggerations, falsehoods, dead-end footnotes and misleading editing of historical facts to fit his political and book-selling agendas.)

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodman is an excellent history of Abraham Lincoln’s political career. It also has some good background on some Civil War battles, and not just from a political perspective.

Truman by David McCullough is a fascinating biography of Harry Truman, and really brings the Midwest of the early 20th century to life. There’s also stories of Truman’s time serving in France in WWI, and naturally the political landscape of the 1940s and 1950s looms large. An excellent book.

I know you didn’t mention the Korean War, but in addition to what you can find in the Truman biography, David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter is a quite detailed history of that war.

I am a big Ambrose and Cornelius Ryan fan but I think the best book written about WWII is Studs Turkel’s The Good War. Its an oral history of the war and the era. He interviewed hundreds of people and put down their stories. It gives a broader view of the war than any other book I have read. If fact, I’ll have to go back and read it again.

The Rick Atkinson books on WWII are good, especially An Army at Dawn, which won a Pulitzer. Jeff Shaara’s books on the Civil and World Wars are decent history, interlaced with some fictional dialogue on the parts of people who are no longer alive. He limits the conversations to what was actually happening at the time, and makes them relevant to history.

First, olives, good for you for deciding to plunge into some studies, and particularly for taking an interest in non-ascendant viewpoints.

To get this perspective in a personal way, you might want to try Defend the Valley, edited by Margaretta Barton Colt, which is letters and diary excerpts from many members of an extended Virginia family. There are letters home from soldiers in the field with Stonewall Jackson, but there’s also a lot on the home front experience of women which you don’t find in the more typical battlefield histories.

I’d also recommend The Confederate War by Gary W. Gallagher, for a large-scale view of the experience of the war by the Confederacy as a nation.

Not only that, his history in Union states is a lot rougher than many people imagine, in terms of the forcible suppression of dissent, as recounted for example in Lincoln’s Wrath by Jeffrey Manber and Neil Dahlstrom.

The Real Lincoln, by Thomas DiLorenzo is a more generalized myth-buster.

For Peleliu, I’d recommend With the Old Breed. An autobiography of a marine who fought in that battle, and one of the best to come out of the war in the pacific.

Pretty much anything by David McCullough, really. 1776 is an unforgettable read about the first year of the war. John Adams was bit of a slog, if only for Adams’s rich life story, but still fascinating.

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 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?

I highly, highly, highly recommend the novel Okla Hannali by R. A. Lafferty. It’s about the life of a Choctaw Indian chief in Oklahoma during the 19th century. While everyone knows about the Trail of Tears and the Indians being forced to move to Oklahoma, few of us have learned anything about what happened after they got there. The portrait of the Indians’s civilization after arrival in Oklahoma is mind-opening and Lafferty’s skill as a writer puts him among the best American novelists, in my opinion.

The author was Eugene Sledge who was, interestingly enough, also a character in HBO’s The Pacific (and also a long time friend of my father). He had major PTSD and in his later years he was an activist in promoting understanding of that disorder to people who honestly thought “get over it!” was valid advice.

If you’ve an interest in the US’ submarine war in the Pacific there are more scholarly accounts, but the best personal account I’d read was Capt. Edward L. Beach’s Submarine.

Be aware, though, that IMNSHO he cleans up a couple of the accounts of figures who are considered pivotal for setting the US Navy’s Submarine fleet’s traditions. (In particular I have grave reservations with his account of Mush Morton’s patrols with Wahoo.)

For a first-person (sort of) account of the Battle of the Atlantic, I highly recommend Daniel V. Gallery’s U-505. Based on extensive work with the crew from the submarine the task group under his command captured, and his own wartime recollections, which are vital for establishing why and how a responsible officer could conceive of trying to capture a submarine after its own crew had abandoned ship, and opened the scuttling valves.

Neither work is one that offers any kind of complete or comprehensive look at the theatre they were set in, but are very good looks at their particular aspect of the war.