The Best Books and Historians According to Pulitzer Prize Winner James M. McPherson

Recently, the New York Times published a brief interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson, The George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.  He is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book Battle Cry of Freedom.  In the interview McPherson identified who he believes are America’s top historians, the best book on  the Civil War, the best military history books, the best books about African American history, most overrated history book (it’s a biggie), and the book most responsible for shaping his career.

All of the historians and books cited by McPherson are outstanding, but they are representative of his generation.  Not surprisingly, this was pointed out by several younger scholars on twitter.  It is also not shocking his preferences were predominantly from historians of either his generation or books that he read during his career.  In many ways books are like music, people like the music of their formative years better than anything that came before it or after.  His choices are certainly understandable, but open to debate.

In the interview, McPherson often referred to an author, but failed to specify which books he preferred. In a number of cases, I have extrapolated which books he might specifically be recommending.  There are certainly other books from the authors he mentions that fit his descriptions.

Here were his answers:

Last Great Book He Read:

James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

Best Books on the Civil War:

Allan Nevins eight volume set on the Civil War –

1. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852

  1. A House Dividing, 1852-1857
  2. Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859

4. Prologue to Civil War, 1859–1861

5. The Improvised War, 1861–1862

  1. War Becomes Revolution, 1862–1863

7. The Organized War, 1863–1864

8.The Organized War to Victory, 1864–1865

 

Favorite Biography of Civil War figure:

Jean Edward Smith, Grant

Best Military Histories:

John Keegan, The Face of Battle

Craig Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War

Craig Symonds, Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings

Craig Symonds, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History

Craig Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (Reflections on the Civil War Era)

Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg

, Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville

Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864

, Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-6, 1864

Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War

, Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War

Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers

, Joseph T. Glatthaar, Partners in command : The relationships between leaders in the Civil War

Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943

Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

Rick Atkinson, The Guns Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

Best African American History Books:

John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom

Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity : History of African-american Slaves (03 Edition)

Many Thousands Gone Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Edited by Ira Berlin, Freedom: Documentary History of Emancipation

Most Important for His Career:

C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913

Book Every President Should Read:

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Most Overrated History Book:

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Penguin Classics)

Books on His Nightstand:

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life

Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

His Next Book:

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

 

Here is the link to McPherson’s interview – James M. McPherson: By the Book – NYTimes.com.

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