The Best Historians and Books According to James McPherson

In 2014, the New York Times published a brief interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson, The George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. McPherson is considered to be the dean of Civil War historians. He is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book Battle Cry of Freedom which is the best overview of the Civil War. In the interview, McPherson stated who he believes are America's top historians, the best book on the Civil War, military history, African American history, the book most responsible for shaping his career, and even the most overrated history book ever. It's a biggie.

All of the historians and books cited by McPherson are outstanding, but they are representative of his generation. Not surprisingly, this was pointed out by several younger scholars. Most of his preferences were predominantly from historians of either his generation of scholars. In many ways books are like music, people like the music of their formative years better than anything that came before it or after. His choices are certainly understandable, but open to debate.

In the interview, McPherson often referred to an author, but failed to specify which books he preferred. In a number of cases, we extrapolated some of the best books written by his favorite historians. There are certainly other books from these authors that are also outstanding.

Here were his answers:

Last Great Book He Read

James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

Best Books on the Civil War

Allan Nevins, Eight Volume Set on the Civil War

Best Historians Writing Today

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins in the American Revolution

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

David McCullough, The Wright Brothers

David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History)

Favorite Biography of Civil War figure

Jean Edward Smith, Grant

Best Military Histories

John Keegan, The First World War

Craig Symonds, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History

Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville

Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5--6, 1864

Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War

Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers

Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (The Liberation Trilogy)

Best African American History Books

John Hope Franklin, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Most Important Book for His Career

C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913

Book Every President Should Read

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Most Overrated History Book

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Penguin Classics)

Books on His Nightstand

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life

Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

His Next Book

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

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