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American history will come alive for you with any of these 26 books!!!

  • Feb 26, 2010
  • by
Over the past decade or so I have done a lot of reading about the history of our great nation.  From all of these I have called what I would consider to be the 25 best books to offer for your consideration.  This list covers a wide variety of interesting subject matter and are listed in no particular order.  I suspect that there is something for just about everyone on this list.  Enjoy!
1
Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West
In his brand new 2010 book author Stephen Fried gives his readers an insight into how the American West was ultimately settled and how an immigrant from England named Fred Harvey built an empire of restaurants, hotels and retail outlets along the emerging Santa Fe railroad. An extremely engaging book that I just finished. I could not put this one down!
See the full review, "Fred Harvey built the first chain of restaurants, hotels & bookstores in the late19th century.".
2
Railroads in the African American Experience: A
Released in January 2010 "Railroads In The African American Experience" takes readers on an illustrated tour of the black railroad experience from slavery to Amtrak. Author Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., examines the significant contributions of African Americans to the building, maintenance, operation, and profitability of the American railway system. Mr. Kornweibel is an esteemed professor of African-American Studies at San Diego State University and a lifelong railroad buff. His love of the subject matter is quite apparent throughout this very entertaining and informative new book.
See the full review, "An extremely important addition to the literature on the African-American experience in America.".
3
A Mighty Long Way
The inspiring story of Carlotta Walls Lanier who at the tender age of 14 became one of the first nine blacks to intergrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The year was 1957. "A Mighty Long Way" is Carlotta Walls LaNier's gripping first person narrative of the historic and painful events that took place in Little Rock back in 1957 and the effect that the experience would have on the rest of her life. Believe me this is a very compelling story.
See the full review, "Walking the walk in Montgomery with a true civil rights pioneer--- Carlotta Walls LaNier.".
4
Washington: The Making of the American Capital
Prior to reading this book I never really knew how the Founding Fathers settled on this particular place as the site of our nation's Capital. I was fascinated to learn about the political wrangling that took place and about how the new "Federal City" almost wound up in Pennsylvania! I also discovered how much we relied on "slave labor" to build D.C. An extremely informative read!
See the full review, "Numerous obstacles had to be overcome to make the new American Capital a reality.".
5
When The Rivers Ran Red
This is a terrific book. This is the story of how California winemakers were forced to cope with Prohibition back in 1919. All of a sudden because of this extremely dubious legislation many family owned vineyards found their incomes slashed dramatically. Immigrant families, many of them Italian, had established productive vineyards. True, they did not yet claim their wines equal to Europe's finest bottlings, but they were patiently waiting for American public taste to mature. Now they faced utter ruin, compelled to dump vats of valuable aging wines into streets, sewers, and rivers. A grim reminder of what can happen when the Federal government inserts itself into areas that they have no business in. A terrific read!
See the full review, "California winemakers did not know what hit them on October 28, 1919.".
6
The Day Wall Street Exploded
Just after noon on September 16, 1920, as hundreds of workers poured onto Wall Street for their lunchtime break, a horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded in a spray of metal and fire, turning the busiest corner of the financial center into a war zone. Thirty-nine people died and hundreds more lay wounded, making the Wall Street explosion the worst terrorist attack to that point in U.S. history. This is an incident that frankly I had never even heard of. A well written book by author Beverly Gage that I rated a +5 all the way!
See the full review, "Recalling a significant but little known chapter in American history".
7
The Bay of Pigs
In The Bay of Pigs , Howard Jones provides a concise, incisive, and dramatic account of the disastrous attempt to overthrow Castro. He deftly examines the train of missteps and self-deceptions that led to the invasion of U. S.-trained exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Ignoring warnings from the ambassador to Cuba, the Eisenhower administration put in motion an operation that proved nearly unstoppable even after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. A sobering look at a poorly planned, badly executed and ill-advised operation. A pivotal event in American history!
See the full review, "An extremely important addition to the historical record.".
8
Ravens In The Storm
In 1964, Carl Oglesby, a young copywriter for a Michigan-based defense contractor, was asked by a local Democratic congressman to draft a campaign paper on the Vietnam War. Oglesby's report argued that the conflict was misplaced and unwinnable. He had little idea that its subsequent publication would put him on a fast track to becoming the president of the now-legendary protest movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Learn how SDS became co-opted by radicals like Bernadine Dhorne and others. SDS would eventually morph into the Weathermen a group that favored armed conflict and ultimately revolution. A fascinating book.
See the full review, "An inside look at SDS and the radicalization of the anti-war movement.".
9
The Execution of Willie Francis
This was without a doubt one of the best books I read in 2008. "The Execution of Willie Francis" would remind you a lot of the classic Harper Lee novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" but this is an incredible true story. Young Willie Francis was just 16 years old when he was charged with the murder of popular St. Martinville druggist Andrew Thomas. The year was 1946. By all accounts the trial was a travesty of justice and WIllie was sentenced to die in a portable electric chair that was hauled from town to town in those days to do the nasty deed. But a funny thing happened when they tried to execute Willie Francis. There was some kind of equipment malfunction and Willie did not die. Now the State of Louisiana sought to try to execute him a second time. The case would eventually go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A positively compelling read!
See the full review, "The story of Willie Francis will outrage and sadden you.".
10
The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (The Penguin Library of American Indian History)
Today, a fraction of the Cherokee people remains in their traditional homeland in the southern Appalachians. Most Cherokees were forcibly relocated to eastern Oklahoma in the early nineteenth century. In 1830 the U.S. government shifted its policy from one of trying to assimilate American Indians to one of relocating them and proceeded to drive seventeen thousand Cherokee people west of the Mississippi. This is truly one of the most heartbreaking stories that you will ever read and a disgraceful chapter in American history.
See the full review, "First in an important new series on American Indian history from Penguin.".
11
Stealing Lincoln's Body
On the night of the presidential election in 1876, a gang of counterfeiters out of Chicago attempted to steal the entombed embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. This is an incident I had never even heard of. I have asked dozens of other if they had ever heard about it and not one of them had! Even more bizarre is the reason why these people tried to pull this caper off. A terrific book that spawned a History Channel special of the same name. Read all about it!
See the full review, "One of the most bizarre episodes in American history.".
12
Last Flag Down
Yet another event in American history that I had never heard of. By late 1864, it seemed clear that the Confederacy had only a short time to live. In the west, the Army of the Tennessee was a spent, shattered force. In the east, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at Petersburg, and the depredations of Sherman and Sheridan brought Southern soldiers to the brink of starvation. In the midst of this gloom, a Confederate ship, the Shenandoah, left Britain and launched a series of remarkably successful raids on Union shipping across vast expanses of open sea. However, cut off from communication with the Southern homeland, the crew was unaware of the surrender of Confederate armies in April 1865. Since the Shenandoah continued raiding, in strictly legal terms the sailors on board were now pirates. When the officers realized this, they began a heroic effort to find a refuge for themselves and their crew. Baldwin and Powers have written a stirring account of one of the more obscure episodes of the Civil War, filled with stunning examples of personal courage in the face of adversity. Yet another great book!
See the full review, "Gripping saga of the year long, around the world trek of the Shenandoah.".
13
First Into Nagasaki
The fascinating story of how an enterprising Chicago Sun Times reporter named George Weller, who Walter Cronkite charactorizes as "one of our best war correspondents" slipped quitely and without authorization into Nagasaki, Japan to see for himself the legacy of the atomic bomb that had been dropped just four weeks earlier. Weller discovered the horrifying truth that tens of thousands had died and that tens of thousands more were injured. He also saw first-hand the effects that radiation were having on people. "First into Nagasaki" is a compilation of the actual dispatches that Weller sent to his newspaper. What Weller did not know was that the military was intercepting them and that they were never published. These dispatches were thought to be lost forever but copies were actually discovered by his son in an old chest after Weller passed away. A very important addition to the history of WW2!
See the full review, "An extremely important addition to the historical record of World War II.".
14
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While our financial system began breaking down you heard frequent references to the term "Ponzi scheme". Learn all about the infamous Charles Ponzi and his legendary pyramid scam in this terrific book. Charles Ponzi always wanted to be famous and unfortunately for him his name is associated with some of the cruelest rip-offs in our nation's history. A very under-rated book!
See the full review, "Learn all about the origins of the "Ponzi" scheme in this great new book!".
15
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
A book that takes us back to the very beginning. This is not a book I would have chosen myself but I received it as a gift. We have all heard the story of that first Thanksgiving but "Mayflower" carries the story on for the ensuing 50 years. You will discover that the Pilgrims and their children maintained more more than five decades of peace with the Wampanoag Indians and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil. The history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know. A terrific read!
See the full review, "A critical period in our history that Americans know precious little about.".
16
Sons of Providence
Before I started reading history I had absolutely no idea how complicit my home state of Rhode Island was in the slave trade. Sons of Providence tells the fascinating story of the Brown Brothers John and Moses. Both started out in the slave trade but before long Moses came to the conclusion that what he was doing was immoral and dispicable. Moses Brown would become one of the leading proponents of abolition while his brother John continued on in the slave trade. Much like the book "John Adams", "Sons of Providence" is culled from the prolific letters between these two brothers giving readers a unique insight into their thought processes. One of the best books I have ever read!
See the full review, "Remarkable book chronicling the issues surrounding the slave trade.".
17
Hanging Captain Gordon
Another compelling book about the "slave trade". In 1860, Captain Nathanial Gordon had taken Africans in chains from the Congo — a hanging offense for more than forty years that no one had ever enforced. But with the country embroiled in a civil war and Abraham Lincoln at the helm, a sea change was taking place. Gordon, in the wrong place at the wrong time, got caught up in the wave. For the first time, Hanging Captain Gordon chronicles the trial and execution of the only man in history to face conviction for slave trading — exploring the many compelling issues and circumstances that led to one man paying the price for a crime committed by many. Definitely among the finest books I have ever read!
See the full review, "The confluence of timing and circumstances would doom Captain Gordon.".
18
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I also included this fine book on my list "Great Reads for Black History Month". Authors Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw transport you back in time to the historic events that were taking place in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1955 and 1956. Read about Rosa Parks and the Montogomery Bus Boycott and also about E.D. Nixon a little known figure who played a major role in the creation of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. An outstanding read!
See the full review, "The inspiring story of E.D. Nixon and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.".
19
In The Shadow of Wounded Knee
On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry killed more than 150 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee, S.Dak. Was it a battle or a massacre? That became the key point of dispute when a Brulé Lakota warrior named Plenty Horses was brought to trial for the murder of Lt. Edward Casey, whom he had killed a week after the slaughter. If the U.S. was not at war with the Lakota, reasoning went, then the Lakota were murdered; but if a state of war did exist, then Plenty Horses's "fatal bullet through the back of Casey's skull" was also an act of war, not murder. Complicating the juridical conundrum was a simpler case: shortly after Casey's death, the "infamous" Culbertson brothers attacked a peaceful Indian encampment. Would an Indian hang for killing a white officer? Could two white men be convicted for killing a settlement of Indians? I found Roger Di Silvestro's book to be a solid +5 offering.
See the full review, "Another tiny piece of the intricate tapestry that is American history.".
20
The Worst Hard TIme
Author Timothy Egan has gained some attention recently with his highly acclaimed book "The Big Burn". "The Worst Hard Time" is the story of the people who lived through the nation's hardest economic depression and its worst weather event is one of the great untold stories of the Greatest Generation. While I certainly came across the story of the Dust Bowl in history books I simply had no idea how extensive this calamity really was. Yet another outstanding offering I am happy to recommend to you.
See the full review, "Particularly relevant in the turbulant economic times in which we live.".
21
Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream
For those interested in the history of the labor movement in this country "Bread and Roses" would certainly be an outstanding choice. Well sourced, evenhanded and briskly paced, Watson's account of the dramatic textile mill strike in Lawrence, Mass., during the icy winter of 1912 presents a panoramic glimpse of a half-forgotten America, one in which violent agitation and swift repression were often the order of the day. This is a riveting account of one of the most significant strikes in American history.
See the full review, "An extremely important event in the history of the American labor movement.".
22
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He qwas the legendary "man behind the curtain" at New York City's legendary Tammany Hall. William Marcy Tweed didn't invent graft, but he rigged elections and stole from the public on an unprecedented scale, gaining a stranglehold on New York City and amassing a vast personal fortune. By the early 1870s, he and his "ring" had skimmed between $25 and $40 million from the municipal treasury, a staggering amount even in an era notorious for robber barons and market manipulators. How could this happen? Read all about it in this fascinating book by Kenneth Ackerman.
See the full review, "Fair and well written history of another man who was known as "The Boss"".
23
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While I enjoyed each and every book I am including on this list I would have to say that "Meet You In Hell" was among the top 3 or 4. This is the story of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the bloody steelworkers' strike that transformed their fabled partnership into a furious rivalry. Set against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, Meet You in Hell captures the majesty and danger of steel manufacturing, the rough-and-tumble of the business world, and the fraught relationship between "the world's richest man" and the ruthless coke magnate to whom he entrusted his companies. You will learn an awful lot about the pros and cons of capitalism in this book.
See the full review, "The pros & cons of capitalism: should be required reading for all high school students.".
24
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I had certainly never heard of her. Hetty Green (1835-1916) was the only woman to make her mark in the financial markets during the Guilded Age of the late 1800s. She parlayed an inheritance of $500,000 into $100 million ($2.5 billion in current money), amassing fortunes in U.S. bonds and real estate through impeccable timing. Immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's greatest miser," she kept her family living in modest tenements, dressed in drab clothes, and was a notorious penny-pincher. Dubbed the "Witch of Wall Street," she was widely believed to live an unhappy existence despite her riches. America's first female tycoon.
See the full review, "The broke the mold when the made Hetty!".
25
The Battle Of Blair Mountain: The Story Of America's Largest Labor Uprising
Another fine offering about the labor movement in America. In this concise, dramatic and authoritative account of the bloody 1921 encounter between the mine workers and mine owners of the West Virginia coalfields—the most tumultuous labor battle in American history—author Robert Shogan gives us a strikingly vivid post-WWI America both utterly foreign and oddly familiar. Really compelling stuff here.
See the full review, "Forgotten rebellion by UMW comes to life in these pages.".
26
The Revolutionary Paul Revere
A book that is both a biography of the legendary American patriot and a pretty comprehensive history of the events leading up to the American Revolution. Should be required reading for high school students everywhere in the country.
See the full review, "O Come All Ye Patriots!".

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March 11, 2010
Sounds like a great list, Paul. I'll have to return and read it very carefully to decide which titles I should be adding to my own reading list. Thanks.
 
March 01, 2010
Thanks for sharing, Paul! I love reading about history and all of these books sound fascinating!
 
March 01, 2010
Great list. I might add two of my favorite books to your list. The Power Broker (the story of how Robert Moses built New York City) and The Devil in the White City (the story of the Chicago Worlds Fair).
 
February 26, 2010
Another fantastic list, Paul. I wish I could read as much as you do! These all sound very interesting. I think I am going to go with the Boss Tweed book though, because that is a period in our history that I am very weak on and yet very intrigued by. Thanks again for the tips and motivation.
 
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About the list creator
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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