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16 Books That Help You Understand America’s History

[mk_fancy_title size=”28″ font_family=”none”]These excellent books detailing the most important chapters of U.S. history are as engrossing as they are informative.[/mk_fancy_title][mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h6″ font_family=”none”]By David Adams[/mk_fancy_title]

The story of America is full of accidents and improbabilities, grand ambitions and terrible tragedies, sudden changes and the slow march of time. In other words, the stuff of great literature. These essential books recount the history of the United States in its most pivotal moments, from the arrival of European explorers to the Vietnam War. Each U.S. history book is illuminating, entertaining, and, above all, an unforgettable read.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About Early America[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: 1491 by Charles C. Mann

This masterful blend of history and science contends that the common understanding of life in the Americas before the arrival of European explorers is almost completely wrong. From the Inca Empire in Peru to Cahokia, the religious center of ancient Mississippian culture, Mann reveals that native societies were much larger, more sophisticated, and more impactful on the environment than we have been led to believe. Few revisionist histories are more eye-opening or entertaining.


Runner-Up: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

With wit and style, Shorto documents life in 17th-century New Netherland, and its capital, New Amsterdam, revealing the Dutch colony’s influence on the American character. From the political rivalry between the settlement’s autocratic director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, and republican lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, to lyrical descriptions of the flora and fauna of what is now Midtown Manhattan, Shorto unearths a lost world that is both familiar and fantastically strange.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About the American Revolution[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

Memorialized in Emanuel Leutze’s iconic—but historically inaccurate—painting, the December 1776 assault on Hessian troops stationed in Trenton, New Jersey was a crucial victory for George Washington and the Continental Army following a string of devastating defeats in New York. Fischer’s cinematic, meticulously researched account sets the record straight on a number of key facts—including the types of boats used to cross the Delaware River—and makes vividly clear just how close the Americans were to losing the war before it had fully begun.


Runner-Up: Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis

As Ellis makes clear, the decades that followed the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were anything but tranquil. Divisions between Federalists and Republicans, the threat of war with France, and the third-rail of slavery all threatened to doom the new nation in its infancy. In this illuminating episodic history, Ellis reveals that the success of the American experiment depended not just on the wisdom of its Founding Fathers, but on a great deal of luck and happenstance.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About the Civil War[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton

Recounting the final year of the Civil War, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winner Catton brilliantly describes the epic clashes that turned the tide of the conflict in the North’s favor: the Wilderness, the Bloody Angle, the Crater, etc. Few historians have captured the soldier’s eye view of battle with greater eloquence or a finer appreciation for how each spur-of-the-moment decision fits into the bigger picture.


Runner-Up: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

Approximately 620,000 soldiers—or 2 percent of the total U.S. population—perished in the Civil War. Today, the same rate of death would equal 6.5 million. But mere numbers cannot fully convey the impact of such monumental suffering on the American psyche. Faust’s somber, elegiac study cuts through the gauzy sentimentalism that surrounds so many popular depictions of the war and serves as a powerful reminder that armed conflict comes with a terrible price.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About the Wild West[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

Comanche Indians once ruled the Great Plains, slowing the march of Manifest Destiny and dominating rival tribes with their superior fighting and riding skills. But by the late 1860s, railroads and the repeating rifle spelled doom for the Comanche. Gwynne’s eloquent, riveting portrait of the tribe and their last and greatest chief, Quanah Parker, captures the blood and fury of westward expansion and restores the Comanche to their rightful place in American history.


Runner-Up: The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

Few moments in the history of the Wild West are more celebrated than the 1881 showdown between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and a gang of outlaw cowboys at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. But Guinn’s gritty and gripping account reveals that much of what we think we know about the iconic event—including where it happened—is wrong, and shows that on the dusty streets of the Old West, the line between hero and villain was never as sharply drawn as it looks in retrospect.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About the Great Depression[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: Hard Times by Studs Terkel

From well-known figures such as Pauline Kael, Cesar Chavez, and Dorothy Day, to the hobos who crisscrossed the country looking for work and the mothers who faced each day not knowing what their children would eat, Terkel elicits the painful memories of Americans whose lives were forever changed by the Great Depression. The humor, resilience, and courage of these survivors shines through on nearly every page of this essential oral history.


Runner-Up: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

After the stock market crash of 1929, the devastating combination of drought, wind, and overworked farms that created the Dust Bowl couldn’t have come at a worse time. As Egan reveals in this fascinating and colorful history, the catastrophe could have been avoided with foresight and a greater respect for the natural environment. At a time when record heat waves and severe storms are occurring with greater frequency, it’s essential to remember how the country once survived a natural disaster of its own making.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About World War II[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

War correspondent Atkinson brings a novelist’s flair for storytelling to this Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Allied invasion of North Africa. Operation Torch was a crucial testing ground for U.S. troops, who were undertaking their first significant action outside of the Pacific Theater, and a key milestone on the roadmap to liberate Europe. Atkinson’s insightful character sketches and enthralling action sequences turn the dry facts of history into an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.


Runner-Up: With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge

After dropping out of an officer training program to ensure that he wouldn’t miss the war, Sledge joined the U.S. Marines as an enlisted man. He immediately encountered some of the fiercest fighting of WWII at Peleliu and Okinawa, where he secretly recorded his impressions in a pocket-sized New Testament. More than 30 years later, he turned those notes into this terrifying, exhilarating, and deeply moving account of the war in the Pacific.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About the Civil Rights Movement[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his involvement in the pivotal Birmingham campaign, Branch expertly chronicles a time of radical change in America. In addition to capturing the qualities that made King such an inspirational leader, Branch offers essential portraits of fellow activists such as John Lewis, Wyatt Tee Walker, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison.


Runner-Up: Voices of Freedom by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer

A companion to the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” this stunning oral history recounts the defining moments of the Civil Rights movement from the perspectives of the students, ministers, lawyers, Freedom Riders, and journalists who were there. From the lynching of Emmett Till to the rise of the Black Panther Party to the battle to desegregate Boston’s public schools, icons such as Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and Huey Newton join a chorus of ordinary citizens to share their pride, fear, courage, joy, and pain.

[mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h4″ size=”20″ font_family=”none”]Best Book About the Vietnam War[/mk_fancy_title]

Winner: The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

Full of revealing anecdotes—including Gen. William Westmoreland’s habit of eating breakfast in his underwear “in order to keep his fatigues pressed”—and unforgettable character sketches, this #1 New York Times bestseller is the definitive account of how the U.S. government went past the point of no return in Vietnam. Halberstam writes with mordant wit and deep feeling as he condemns a generation of American leaders for their “unwilling[ness] to look to and learn from the past.”


Runner-Up: Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald

When it was first published in 1972, FitzGerald called her chronicle of America’s involvement in Vietnam “a first draft of history.” But Fire in the Lake has more than withstood the test of time. After efficiently recounting 1,000 years of Vietnamese resistance to foreign invaders, FitzGerald makes the clear-eyed, articulate, and devastating assessment that nearly every aspect of the U.S. strategy in Indochina was based on a fundamental misreading of the people and their culture.

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