50 Best Books for American History Buffs

While a young country in comparison to many others around the globe, the United States nonetheless has a rich and engaging history. From the early days of settlement on the East Coast in Maryland, to the wild days of outlaws and Indian wars in the West, from shore to shore, there is plenty to learn about when it comes to studying how our country came to be the nation that it is today.

Best of all, you don’t have to major in history to do it. All you need is a passion for history and a few good books. Here we’ve compiled a list of just a few of these wonderful books on America’s past that offer an education on the complexities of the history of our country you likely didn’t even touch upon in your previous history courses.

Historical Figures

Check out these books for the lives of some of the most important and distinguished figures in American history.

  1. John Adams by David G. McCullough:

    In this amazing book, readers will find themselves drawn into the life of founding father John Adams, filled with political battles, controversy, and even some pirates.

  2. Grant by Jean Edward Smith:

    A recent and heavily-researched take on the life of this American president and military leader, Grant takes readers on a journey through this Ohio native’s life, beginning with his first forays into a military action and ending with his oft-critiqued term as president.

  3. Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris:

    One of the most beloved but controversial figures in American history, Teddy Roosevelt is truly larger than life, a man readers will be able to see brought to life in this engaging read.

  4. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Raymond Manchester:

    In this book, you’ll get to look at the army career of this legendary general, who helped shape some of America’s biggest conflicts.

  5. Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro:

    Going from 1950-1960, this book by Robert Caro examines in great detail Lyndon Johnson’s stint in the Senate.

1600-1815: The Founding of a Nation

Use these books to better understand how our country came to be, from the earliest settlers at Jamestown in Virginia to the great expansion allowed by the Louisiana Purchase (the acquisition of Louisiana from the French).

  1. Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History by Nick Bunker:

    One of the most comprehensive books on the first Pilgrim settlements, this book is a must-read for any early American history scholar.

  2. Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation by David A. Price:

    With so much myth surrounding these figures and this setting, it can be hard to get to the truth of what really happened. This book will help you to do just that, covering the people and events central to the founding of this tumultuous settlement.

  3. American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor:

    Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor takes readers on a jaunt through the early days of the American colonies, which included territory in Delaware, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, covering battles over ownership of the land, cultural clashes with natives, and much more.

  4. 1776 by David McCullough:

    Written by acclaimed historian David McCullough, this book is an excellent look into the battles, politics, and people that were central to the Revolutionary War.

  5. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis:

    This fascinating book will take you into aspects of the Revolutionary War and the relationships between the Founding Fathers (or brothers, as the book calls them) you probably didn’t know about, making the conflict seem much more nuanced and the times much more interesting that your run-of-the-mill history book would imply.

  6. The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood:

    We don’t tend to think of our Founding Fathers as being radicals, but in their time their ideas weren’t exactly the mainstream. Read this book to learn how these ideas and the people behind them would go on to shape the foundations of our nation.

  7. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson:

    How much do you really know about the French and Indian War? If you’d like to expand your knowledge, this slimmed-down version of Anderson’s Crucible of War is a great place to start.

  8. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America by Jon Kukla:

    Perhaps one of the best deals ever made by a budding nation, the Louisiana Purchase would forever change the face of our nation. Read more about the negotiations behind the deal and the politics that almost made it go bust in this compelling book.

  9. The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lewis & Clark Expedition) by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Frank Bergon:

    Here, you can read Lewis and Clark’s firsthand reactions as they trek through the great wilderness of the American West.

  10. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor:

    The War of 1812 may not be exactly as your history books told you it was, as the title of this book might imply. It wasn’t purely a battle for independence, but a civil war as well, a fact you’ll learn about in great detail in this book.

1816-1900: Westward Expansion and the Civil War

Read about the horrors of the Civil War that turned brother against brother and the ensuing years of westward expansion that began shaping the nation as we know it today.

  1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    What kind of man appoints his former political rivals to his cabinet? Apparently a smart one, as Goodwin showcases in highly engaging prose in this acclaimed book.

  2. The Spanish War: An American Epic 1898 by G. J. A. O’Toole:

    Prompted by the explosion of the Maine, the Spanish American War was to shape the face of American politics for years to come, and readers will find an excellent description of the events leading up to, during, and after the conflict here.

  3. The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote:

    Arguably one of the most comprehensive studies on the Civil War, this three-volume series is a must-read for any Civil War history buff who wants to learn more about it.

  4. Blood and Thunder: An Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides:

    Filled with descriptions of the destruction of the Navajo nation, this book paints a brutal picture of the American West.

  5. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe:

    Impeccably researched and written, this study of the industrialization and expansion of the United States helps bring many aspects of the period to light in a way accessible to even the most casual of readers.

  6. So Far from God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 by John S. D. Eisenhower:

    This book takes a close look at the major figures in the Mexican-American War (most notably Winfield Scott) and offers insights into a conflict often dismissed as a simple lead-up to the larger conflict of the American Civil War.

  7. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle:

    Natives to the United States underwent a great deal of persecution at the hands of the U.S. government (and some might argue that they still don’t always get a fair shake). This book traces the history of one American Indian tribe and their eventual brutal expulsion from their native lands.

  8. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors by Stephen Ambrose:

    See the conflict between the U.S. Army and the Indians from both sides through the lives of these engaging figures.

  9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown:

    For much of the history of America, native people were portrayed as heartless savages attacking settlers, but this book will show you that is was not the case. In fact, the opposite was true.

  10. Landscape Turned Red by Stephen Sears:

    Rather than trying to tackle the whole Civil War in one go, this book focuses on the Battle of Antietam, showcasing the politics that both preceded and followed it as well.

  11. Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson:

    Originally published in 1988, this book is a classic look at the Civil War and is a great overview for those looking to learn about the conflict and the complex economic, political, and social issues that caused it.

WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression

Covering the battles of the major world wars and the hard years that many Americans faced during the Great Depression, these reads may often be saddening, but are always nonetheless fascinating.

  1. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen Ambrose:

    Ambrose’s book formed the basis for the acclaimed HBO series Band of Brothers, and documents the story of one group of men who fought through some of the most iconic battles of WWII.

  2. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan:

    Covering five states, the worst dust storm of all time destroyed farms and hurt those already struggling to make ends meet. This book tells the story of those who lived and survived the ecological (and economic) disaster.

  3. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    If you’d like to learn a bit more about the FDR presidency and its role in WWII, this book is the perfect vehicle to do so.

  4. Hiroshima by John Hersey:

    With stories compiled shortly after the devastation caused by the bombing at Hiroshima, this book, first published in 1946, creates a vivid picture of the utter horror the atomic bombs unleashed on the population of this city.

  5. Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific by Eric Hammel:

    One of the most famous and most difficult battles of the Pacific theater during WWII, Iwo Jima is an iconic turning point in WWII. In this book, readers will see numerous photographs and maps while reading Hammel’s engaging accounts of the men involved in the battle.

  6. Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor by Walter Lord:

    Who better to tell about the attack on Pearl Harbor than those who were there to witness it firsthand? In this book, you’ll get just that, with numerous interviews with survivors on both sides of the battle.

  7. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G. J. Meyer:

    At the time, few could have imagined a war on such a massive scale, but WWI would show the world that with the advent of new technologies comes new, more global conflicts. In Meyer’s book, readers will learn about the history of the war and the many tragedies that occurred during and after battle.

  8. The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman and Robert K. Massie:

    Learn just how WWI began and what could have been done to prevent it in this impeccably researched novel by acclaimed historian Tuchman.

  9. Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald:

    In one of the most shameful episodes in American history, thousands of Japanese Americans were put into concentration camps during WWII. This book shares the story of one of those citizens, a young girl who struggled to survive with her family though those trying years.

  10. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 by Anthony J. Badger:

    This book aims to take a more balanced look at the New Deal and how it helped America recover from one of the worst depressions in history.

  11. The Great Depression: America in the 1930s by T. H. Watkins:

    Filled with photographs and historical data, this book offers amazing insight into what life was like for the average American in the 1930s.

1900-Present

A lot can happen in a little over a century. These books trace the history of the U.S. from women gaining the right to vote, through the tumultuous 60s and 70s, all the way up to the modern day.

  1. With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote by Ann Bausum:

    It has been less than a century since women were granted the right to vote, a hard-fought and not easily won battle that is chronicled with great detail in this book.

  2. The Fifties by by David Halberstam:

    While it is oft-remembered as a time of peace and prosperity, Halberstam gives a picture of the fifties as a time when social and political issues boiled just below the surface, touching on major topics in the history of the decade, from the Cold War to the availability of TV.

  3. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Robert F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.:

    You’ll get a firsthand account of the tense days of 1962, when the U.S. learned that the USSR was installing missiles in Cuba in this book by noted political figures RFK and Schlesinger.

  4. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin and Tom Hanks:

    Based on hundreds of hours of interviews and research, this book is a sweeping and epic account of the history of American space exploration from 1961-1972.

  5. A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo:

    Caputo’s memoir of fighting in Vietnam is disturbing to say the least. Brutally honest, Caputo’s tale vividly showcases the lengths humans will go to survive in wartime.

  6. Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow:

    Readers will get a look at the Vietnam conflict from both sides in this novel, which blends personal tales and political history to explore the intricacies of this military conflict.

  7. Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story–The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company by Patrick K. O’Donnell:

    Facing Chinese soldiers, subzero temps, supply shortages and forbidding terrain, the soldiers of George Company survived in the harshest of conditions– a amazing tale that is brought to life in O’Donnell’s book.

  8. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-72 by William Raymond Manchester:

    Covering four decades, this book details some of the major conflicts at home and abroad that shaped these years of American history.

  9. The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman:

    In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, readers will learn all about the history of the Cold War, as well as the legacy of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons it left behind.

  10. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Michael J. Klarman:

    Take a look at Civil Rights from a judicial perspective in this book that examines the interplay between the U.S. Supreme Court and race relations in the United States at large.

  11. Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne:

    Learn not only about four of the iconic albums of 1970, but also about the world-changing events that these tunes were the background for in this gripping tale of the turbulent start to the 70s.

  12. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright:

    In this book, readers will learn about the long history of terrorism leading up to the attacks on 9/11, which Wright argues may have been prevented.

  13. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins:

    New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins shares what it’s like to be on the front line of the conflicts in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, showcasing a violent battle that isn’t like to end anytime soon.

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