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American History

Stephanie Shieldhouse

Long Bright Line

Through the window Clara could see the men: dark still hats huddled together. The only thing moving was their pipe smoke. It curled in lamp-​lit clouds. Then—​a whoop!—​the clouds blew, the huddle burst, the hats were flying.

General Jackson's "Chancellorsville" Portrait, taken at a Spotsylvania County farm on April 26, 1863, seven days before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville

Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

May 2, 2013

I was walking through a cornfield in search of a cemetery in the middle of Virginia. A fox trotted across the path in front of me and disappeared in the forest of stalks with barely a rustle. I was searching for Stonewall Jackson’s lost arm.

The Uncultured South

Has the South been buffaloing America for half a century into thinking it was a second Athens wrecked by a Northern barbarian democracy, when actually the second Athens drank mint juleps, ate batter-bread, and thought up moral defenses for the institution that made life comfortable? Is the culture of the Old South a myth?

Reports From the Political Laboratory

It may well be, as Mr. Commager says, that the American political experience of three and a half centuries has afforded "the most elaborate political laboratory in all history and one whose findings have been pretty well recorded." For thirty years now, roughly since the publication of Mr. Beard's study of the origins of the Constitution, historical investigators in that great laboratory have been reporting findings and releasing odors not always flattering to American democracy and its institutions—often quite unflattering, in fact. Yet it is safe to say that the products of this generation of historians will long be considered monumental.

A Martial Epic for Our Own Time

House of War is a history of intricate and momentous decisions made by powerful and complicated personalities, beginning with the decision that has shadowed and will shadow all subsequent human life: the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Involved in that decision were several others: the decision to demand Japan’s unconditional surrender, the decision whether to publicly demonstrate the bomb’s destructive potential beforehand or to use it first in a surprise attack, and the decision about which cities to put on the target list. Though we all know how these decisions come out, Carroll’s masterly account is freighted not merely with gravity but with touches of genuine suspense. I have not read enough of the large literature on the decision to use the bomb to say with confidence whether his moral judgments about it—and about another profoundly disturbing episode, the firebombing of Japanese cities—are valid. But I can testify that they are plausible, deeply pondered, richly documented, and eloquently stated. It is a new century, but we are not through debating this matter.


Lee’s Army Revisited

"Nineteen men in two distinct groups rode forward from the coalescing Confederate lines west of Chancellors-ville at about 9:00 p. m. on May 2, 1863. Only seven of the nineteen came back untouched, man or horse . . . Major General A.P. Hill escaped among the unscathed handful. Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, among those farthest from the flash point, was one of the five men killed or mortally wounded." So begins "The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy," the title chapter of prize-winning Civil War historian Robert K. Krick's latest book—an eclectic but compulsively readable collection of ten essays on Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, most of them focusing on such seminal episodes as Jackson's death, Lieutenant General James Longstreet's foot-dragging, and Major General Robert Rodes' relatively little-known heroics. The result is a brilliant tour de force.


Disturbing the Peace: Gerald W. Johnson In An Age of Conformity

He had been such from the beginning of his long and remarkably productive career—a career that stretched more than six decades and saw the publication of more than 15,000,000 words, including more than 40 books. Born in Riverton, North Carolina on Aug.6, 1890, he graduated from Wake Forest College in 1911 and served in France with the A.E.F. during World War I.Upon returning to America and assuming the post of associate editor on the Greensboro Daily News, he attacked the Ku Klux Klan (they threatened to visit his house at night but never showed up) and criticized the governor of North Carolina. Discussing the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee during the hot summer of 1925, he championed freedom of speech. Five years later, he denounced the Southern Agrarians and their controversial manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, and the ensuing battle lasted for decades. During the 1930's, he attacked the opponents of the New Deal and found himself at war with his employer, the Baltimore Sunpapers. As World War II approached, he lambasted the isolationists. During the 1948 presidential campaign, the Dixiecrats felt his wrath; he thought them unenlightened reactionaries. In brief, Johnson refused to keep quiet and refused to back down, and his career was marked by considerable bellicosity.


The Good, the Bad, and the Phony: Six Famous Historians and Their Critics

What a bad time it has been for the nation's best-known historians—that is, for the small number of historical writers, some affiliated with academic institutions and some not, whose books regularly inhabit the bestseller lists, whose faces frequently appear on television, and whose speaking fees reach well into the five figures. The entire roster consists of six people: Stephen E. Ambrose, Michael Beschloss, Joseph J. Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris. All but Morris have recently been accused, in widely read publications and in some cases on talk shows, of offenses ranging from incompetence and superficiality to plagiarism and outright fabrication. Morris had his own spell of notoriety three years ago, when he published a "semi-fictional" (his term) biography of Ronald Reagan.


Bungling National Priorities

There is no other book quite like this, a detailed analysis of the debates over national budget priorities all the way from 1932 to 2002. It could hardly appear at a better time, as President Bush launches the most controversial budget in memory. This subject may sound dreary, but it is not. The book is acceptable to non-specialists and its discussion necessarily involves value judgements not narrowly circumscribed by economics. So this is also national history, of the past seven decades, often rather dense with detail. The history is essential because you can't debate national priorities out of context with the socio-economic political setting, the world.