This year has been an historical one. There’s no doubt about it. And there’s no doubt that scribes are industriously recording our interesting times for future generations to read about. Until then, here is a selection of some of our Best History Books of 2016.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard – It should come as no surprise that Winston Churchill was an ambitious, young go-getter long before he became Sir Winston Churchill—but you might be surprised by how interesting his young life was. The son of Lord Randolph Churchill—who ascended to the position of leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer before dying at the age of forty five—Winston Churchill set off as a young man to find glory on the battlefield, with an eye toward ultimately emulating his father’s success in politics. The young Winston played a part in four wars on three different continents, the last of which was the Boer War. His experience as a prisoner in that war is the jumping off point of this book, and author Millard puts her narrative gifts to work as she describes his harrowing escape, setting the man in his time, and illustrating the man to describe his times. — Chris Schluep
American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White – So who is buried in Grant’s tomb, anyway? That’s an old and insipid joke, of course, but considering what we think we know about the 18th President of the United States, a question worth asking might be hiding in there. With American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald C. White endeavors over 800 pages (over 100 them being notes referencing primary and secondary sources) to shed light on one of our most influential yet enigmatic figures. This isn’t a revisionist biography; Grant already got that treatment in the early 20th century, when he transformed from a respected Civil War general and public servant into a craven opportunist and failed president, drunk and penniless at his death (just try imagining a destitute former POTUS in this era). White, author of the award-winning bestseller, A. Lincoln: A Biography, first redresses criticisms of his martial prowess—primarily that he exploited a huge numbers advantage by needlessly sacrificing troops in exchange for victory—with detailed accounts, maps, and illustrations of his conflicts, limning a battlefield acumen previously diminished through ad hominem barbs. White resuscitates Grant’s career as a public servant through his presidency and beyond—he was a defender of equal rights and an enemy of the Ku Klux Klan–by placing in the context of the complex postbellum landscape, where the war may have been won but the country was hardly whole. Serious, exhaustive, and likely definitive, American Ulysses is a tricky meld of comprehensive research and readable narrative, worthy of the pantheon of monumental presidential biographies. —Jon Foro
The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens – Why write a book about the Indian Wars when we already have Dee Brown’s seminal 1970 account Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? It turns out there’s a very good reason. While Dee Brown’s book greatly informed our modern view of the conflict between Native Americans and the United States government, it didn’t get everything right. Put very simply, the Indians weren’t all good and the white people weren’t all bad. In fact, especially with the Native Americans, it was much more complicated than that. As an example, inter-tribe rivalries led to strategic decisions—like siding with the U.S. government—that made sense given the landscape of power. This is a story of survival, one that unfolds under the shadow of a predetermined tragedy. If you’re at all interested in the Indian Wars, this scrupulous and even-handed account is essential reading. –Chris Schluep
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick – I spent early summers running around Valley Forge in Pennsylvania and my later childhood years living next door to Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought—so I thought I had a pretty good handle on the war. Philbrick proved me wrong with his fascinating history of the years from 1776 to 1780, when the new country teetered between victory and disaster, its destiny influenced by George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Both generals were audacious—Washington and Arnold jumped into situations risky both to themselves and to the soldiers who fought for them. Both generals suffered indignities at the hands of the Continental Congress, a body riven by its own politics and hamstrung by its inability to set taxes on its citizens. But while Washington learned to temper his aggressiveness, sought others’ wisdom, and developed a strategy for winning the war, Arnold remained self-centered and self-aggrandizing, focusing on the tactical to the detriment of the larger goal—culminating in his decision in 1780 to turn coat and deliver the fortress at West Point to the British army. Philbrick’s eye for the illuminating detail and his clear writing keeps the story taut, unlike many history books that too often overwhelm the reader with a sludge of see-I-did-my-research prose. Riveting and relevant, Valiant Ambition explodes the myth that a triumphant revolution was inevitable. –Adrian Liang
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