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 –

The Top Ten Starter Booklist for 19th Century United States History

Rise of American Democracy
The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz

These books each cover a specific aspect or period of the 19th Century.  This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it is designed to give you an overview of the entire century.  Each of these books has an extremely wide scope and  broad ambitions.  They are also fairly conventional choices.  When you fill a booklist with conventional  safe picks, you leave off some of the good stuff.  Trust us, we will get to the good stuff.

Still, if you read each of these books you will gain a solid initial grasp of 19th Century America.  Are there unforgivable omissions?  Yes, there are ridiculously important books that have been left off the list, but you have to start somewhere.

If you disagree with this list, please leave a comment explaining why we are completely wrong.  Suggest a book and tell us which book should be removed from the list.  If you make a strong case and convince us, we will happily revise this list.  Remember this is a 19th Century United States STARTER  booklist.

 1.  Early Republic:  Joyce Oldham Appleby,  Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2000)

 2.  Jacksonian America:  Charles Sellers,  The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (Oxford University Press, 1991)

 3.  Politics of the Early Republic:  Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005)

 4.  Westward Expansion/Environmental History: William Cronon,  Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West  (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)

 5.  Slavery:  Stephanie M. H. Camp,  Closer to Freedom:  Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (UNC Press, 2004)

 6.  Pre-Civil War:  David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Harper Perennial, 1977)

 7.  American West:  Elliot West,  The Contested Plains:  Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (University of Kansas Press, 1998)

 8.  Civil War:  James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 2003)

 9.  Reconstruction:  Eric Foner,  Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper, 1989)

 10. Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (Hill and Wang, 1966)

Check out our Bookshelf at Powell’s Books.

Top Ten 19th-Century American Intellectual History Booklist

Intellectual history is an intriguing field because it is by its very nature cross-disciplinary.  While these books my be in arguably different fields (History of Sex, History of Religion, Legal History, History of Technology, Political History, etc.) they are all, at their core, deeply concerned with the history of ideas.  Intellectual history is not the history of old, white philosophers stroking their beards behind mahogany desks.

One of the books on this list, The Metaphysical Club, has already appeared on one of our lists in the past – .  It not only explored the philosophical concept of pragmatism, but it helped illuminate the history of the Gilded Age. Nathan Hatch’s book The Democratization of Christianity looks at the Second Great Awakening and is a preeminent book of American Religious History.  Still, the Second Great Awakening was not just a religious movement because contained important intellectual ideas that changed the course of American history.  Each of these books, in their own way, accomplish this delicate balancing act.

As with all of our lists, we hope that people will comment on our selections.  If someone makes a compelling argument why one of the books on this list should be replaced with another book, we will consider creating a new and hopefully better 19th-Century American Intellectual History Booklist 2.0.

  1.  Louis Menand,  The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002)

  1.  Irving H. Bartlett, The American Mind in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Wiley-Blackwell, 1982)

  1.  Anne C. Rose, Voices of the Marketplace: American Thought and Culture, 1830-1860 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004)
  2.  Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (University of California Press, 1991)

  1.  Nancy Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (UNC Press, 1998)
  •  Lewis Perry, Boats Against the Current: American Culture Between Revolution and Modernity, 1820-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1993)

    1.  Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (Yale University Press, 1983)

    1.  Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford University Press, 2000 – 35th Anniversary Edition)

    1.  Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989)

    1. Jeffrey Sklansky, The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920 (UNC Press, 2002)

    Check out our Bookshelf at Powell’s Books.

    Top Ten Social History of American Medicine Booklist

    Some notes about this list:

    First, why did we leave Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine (Basic Books, 1984) off this Top Ten list?  It is perhaps the best known American medical history book, and it is an essential reference.  Pretty much anyone who has written about the history of American medicine has cited it.  Should you read it?  Yes.  Check it out or buy it and skim the parts that interest you.  It is probably the one book on the list that most historians are aware of and that is why we left it off.  We also left off William Rothstein’s American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century:  From Sects to Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, reprint edition 1992) and Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Brought to Bed:  Child-Rearing in America, 1750-1950 (Oxford University Press, 1986) for similar reasons.

    Second, we have only one book from Charles E. Rosenberg.  We could have easily picked several books from him, but we did not want his books to take up the entire list.  We picked The Cholera Years, because it is our favorite, but almost any of his other books could be on here.  

    Third, these books are in no particularly order.  We don’t think number 1 is more important or better than number 10.

    Finally, as is always the case, if you disagree with this list, please leave a comment explaining why we are wrong.  Suggest a book and tell us which book should be removed from the list.  If you make a strong case and convince us, we will happily revise this list.  

    Conduct Unbecoming a Woman

    1.  Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn, Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Dangerous Preganancies 

    2.  Leslie Reagan, Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, University of California Press, 2012.

    3.  Anderson, Warwick, Colonial Pathologies:  American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines, Duke University Press, 2006.

    4.  Allan Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880Oxford University Press, 1987.

     5.  Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, University of California Press, 2001.

    6.  Martin Pernick,  A Calculus of Suffering: Pain, Professionalism and Anesthesia in Nineteenth-Century America, Columbia University, 1987.

    Dead on Arrival

    7.  Colin Gordon,  Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health Care in Twentieth-Century AmericaPrinceton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

    8.  Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    Abortion in America

    9.  Mohr, James,   Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of a National PolicyNew York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    10.  Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern AmericaUniversity of California Press, 2005.

    Check out the Bookshelf at Powell’s Books.