As part of my classes in US History, I require students to read books and write summaries of them. Here's a short and quite incomplete list of some books that I can recommend to take a closer look at US History. You'll note that I lean toward military history. Your tastes may differ.
What are some of your favorites?
Early US History:
James West Davidson, After the Fact - A fascinating look at the history that isn't covered in a typical textbook.
Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned - An interesting book that gives a question and answer format to talk about all the history that the textbooks gloss over. Be sure to read the revised edition, which includes information on the Clinton administration and 9/11.
Frederick Douglass, Autobiography - Douglass wrote this book in part to prove that he did indeed escape from slavery and became an educated proponent of abolition.
Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington - A fairly concise biography of one of the great people in US history. Check out Ellis' other book Founding Brothers as well.
Shelby Foote, Shiloh - Okay, it's historical fiction, but it's a terrific account of what it was like to fight at Shiloh during the Civil War.
Ben Franklin, Autobiography - One of the truly great men of history, his autobiography is on my personal required reading list of U.S. history.
Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening - A readable account of the ideas and events leading up to the first battle of the Civil War. It includes a lot of ideas not expressed in other books and places the accountability of the war directly on the inability of the US to compromise on the question of slavery.
David McCullough, 1776 - A popular and readable book that gives a modern interpretation of the military events surrounding the establishment of the US.
James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution - One of the best on the Civil War. Check out his other books.
Edmund Morgan, Puritan Dilemma - Edmund Morgan is one of the better historians in colonial history. You can also check out his biography of George Washington.
Edmund Morgan, Benjamin Franklin - A great biography of a most interesting man.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense - Here's where it all started. Although a little difficult because of the language, this is well worth studying to understand the foundations of American Liberty.
Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts - Salem has always fascinated me and this is a good place to start.
Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography - A good biography of the great president's life. This covers his entire life, not just the Civil War period.
Later US History:
Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers - A readable account of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. Heartrending and funny at the same time. First rate storytelling of the US soldiers who fought in the war.
Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors -A good introduction to these two which also sheds light on the controversial period of the war between the U.S. and the Sioux. Quite readable.
Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War - This is fabulous reading. Atkinson's writing is compelling and the story is a fair representation of the Gulf War.
Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War - This book is about a mostly forgotten episode in Somalia. Written in journalistic style, this is not for the weak of stomach. It lacks some of the historical background I would have liked to see but is a quick read.
Sean Cashman, African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights 1900-1990 - A good outline of the civil rights movement in the US.
Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - A readable and inspiring biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner, who served on a B-26 bomber during WWII. He faced tremendous trials in combat, in surviving a month in a rubber raft, and as a prisoner of war to the Japanese.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History - Although longer than the others (669 pages) Karnow's book is readable and will give you a good background on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Don't skip the sections on the earlier history, especially the French invovlement or you'll miss out on some important background.
C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite - Sociology of who really runs the country. Kind of dry reading, but an important contribution to understanding the US.
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd - Sociology of individualism as it developed in the 20th century. Also kind of dry, but groundbreaking.
Frank Thompkins, Chasing Villa - A look at the clash between the U.S. and Mexico's Pancho Villa.
Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull - I have a lot of respect for Robert Utley and consider him the finest of historians who cover American Indians.
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA - A thoroughly readable and chilling account of how the CIA formed, what it's original goals were, and how it got derailed by politics and its own agenda.