History Buff Holiday Top Ten Reading List

Have a buff in the family? Are you a buff yourself? Have you found yourself with some extra time over the holiday season? Looking for that perfect gift. I got you, homie.

Here’s a list of ten history book winners in no particular order that should make you – or someone close – happy for the holidays.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand – One, reading this will make you seem smart to your friends at parties. Two, it will give you a sense of American thought…yes that’s right – ideas. We have had some in the past, perhaps we will again in the future.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz – This is actually the only thing I assign my students in my advanced course on the Civil War that is not a war era first-hand account. Horwitz’s adventures in the post war “Confederacy” should shed a good deal of illumination on our current situation, if you know what I mean.

The Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Nelson Limerick – The West is an American thing, y’all. Or at least, our West is. Does that not make any sense…? Maybe if you read the book then…

An Army and Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson – The so-called Liberation Trilogy…I swear, I have read every word of all three volumes…TWICE. This is military history at it’s finest.

With Their Bare Hands by Gene Fax – Speaking of military history, a student gifted me this book…her grandfather wrote it. And I was very pleased. The author really brings WWI to life, tracing an American regiment from the beginning to the end in vivid and exhilarating detail.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Because the country is a mess…and the legacy of slavery is with us in all respects. Progressive or conservative, I do not care…read this and read it with an open mind.

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo – I know, I know…there are a million books on Gettysburg and here I am recommending another one. And to be honest, I take issue with a few of the author’s conclusions. But…the man can tell a story better than pretty much anyone I have ever read on the subject. We can argue about the book later.

Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love by Peter Guralnick – ELVIS! The King of Rock…love him or really love him, no one can deny the man’s influence on music. And to make things even better…the guy was just plain weird. I mean really weird. (bonus: read the chapter “I’m All Stopped Up” in Mary Roach’s Gulp…I dare you).

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin – Yes, I am willing to forgive past accusations of plagiarism. Whatever…to err is human. I think Ms. Goodwin is a hell of a writer, and this dual biography of TR and Taft is a great look at the power of political relationships. For better or worse.

The Mind of the Master Class by Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese – this is a dense book that may require an advanced degree to get all the way through…but even so, it will most certainly keep people from talking to you on airplanes. It’s deep, my friend – just try and explain it to your chatty neighbor. You’ll quiet them down fast enough.

BONUS!! To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – because F YOU Biloxi, Mississippi School Board for taking this off your required reading list.

And Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and all the rest –  with my compliments –

Peace be with you all…






Civil War Photography…Worth the Read

Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017). By Nicholas Pistor

Photography was a relatively new medium in the 1860s, and the Civil War was the first war photographed in any significant way. Nicholas Pistor’s new volume traces how photographers approached and chronicled the war for posterity from its earliest moments to its final days. Readers with a fluency in Civil War history might find the brief sketch of the issues that divided the nation and the military events as they unfolded a little thin. Pistor provides a cursory narrative, and as such there is nothing resembling war analysis. The author is more concerned with infusing another narrative against the backdrop of the war.

In this effort, Pistor offers a compelling story: one that includes robust competition and what we might consider a Civil War era manifestation of personal branding. Photographer Matthew Brady, as Pistor notes, brought the war to peoples’ doorsteps in a way previously unimagined, and for this he should rightfully assume his place among some of the great media innovators. But Pistor also notes that Brady was not always responsible for the images that bore his trademark name, and that others on his team were often responsible for some of the most iconic images.

But in early photography, name meant a great deal, and Brady’s fame as a national figure delivered. His name today is nearly synonymous with Civil War era photography. Still, others did well with the medium. Former Brady underling Alexander Gardner also made a name for himself. What’s more, he may have had a better business sense – perhaps better negotiating skills than his former supervisor, and thus found himself as the “official” government photographer by the end of the war – a title that would position him among the more noteworthy participants in one of the era’s most macabre culminating moments.

Pistor excels at telling the story of war photography in its infancy, and those with an interest in the subject will find much to offer. What is confusing is the title. The play on words – Shooting Lincoln –  does not really work, simply because this is not a story about photographing Lincoln, who would of course eventually be “shot” and killed, as a “story of the century.” Rather, it is an overview of Civil War photography and a hurried look at the war narrative, which does eventually weave its way to a very interesting story of how Alexander Gardner photographed the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The subtitle of the book is equally misleading. There does not seem to be a “race” here…as in a competition, because as Pistor states, it was Alexander Gardner (not the more well-known Brady) who had the “monopoly” on government photography work.

Pistor suggests in a brief coda that all film makers owe a debt to Gardner for his near live action series of photographs graphically showing the moments leading to the conspirators’ hanging, their final seconds on the scaffold, and the eerie swaying of the dead at the end of the hangman’s ropes. One might agree that Gardner should receive credit for creating a technique for capturing the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators that foreshadowed motion pictures. Pistor’s claims are fair – let the readers be the judge.



Hardtack 2017

One of the primary objectives in my Civil War class is to have the students understand and experience some of the things a typical soldier in the ranks might have experienced during the war. Of course, the kids do not get ticks or lice (thankfully), nor do they contract dysentery (also thankfully), further…no one is shooting at them (I am especially pleased about this one).

But there are a few things we can recreate. For example, I recently tasked them with a research project where the students read a number of soldiers’ letters and journals. From this point they assumed the identity of a soldier (Union or Confederate) and wrote a letter home.  The objective was not only to recreate an authentic look and feel but more importantly, voice the spirit of the times. You can check out the results HERE.

Last week I took a break from the more rigorous classroom work  – we formed ranks and marched to the school kitchen where we made…and then subsequently ate the Civil War delicacy: hardtack. To get them in the mood, I had them read an excerpt from John Billings’s 1887 Hardtack and Coffee – you can read the excerpt yourself HERE. I’ve included a recipe with the document. Trust me, it’s not very complicated.

So, we made it…we ate it…and some kids asked for seconds. Go figure.

As you all most surely know, this stuff – the standard Union soldier ration – was as hard as a rock. So, many would fry up some delightful (perhaps rancid) pork fat to help soften the concrete-hard cracker. Now, we didn’t do that. Those of you who know me will know why and those of you who do not – well…suffice it to say…that would not fly at my school. Instead, we soaked the hardtack in coffee, which is also a perfectly legit recreation of what an actual soldier might have done to ease the blow to his molars.

At any rate – teachers, take a break from the hard stuff (see what I did there) and put together this very hands-on project. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of it and your students will have a nice snack…who knows, they might even learn something 🙂

With compliments,


My Offer to the Students of Biloxi, Mississippi

A couple of days ago I learned that a Mississippi school district including the city of Biloxi decided to pull Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird from its summer reading list. District powers-that-be claimed that the book made some people uncomfortable.

Suffice it to say, I find this decision to be ridiculous, to say the least. For one, the book is supposed to make people uncomfortable…that was kinda the point. And as I see things, it makes more sense to read books than ban them.

So here’s my offer to the students of Biloxi – let’s read the book together and assemble a virtual book club. I’m a high-school teacher and though I teach American history, I have included in my course curriculum detailed discussions of this book and its significance. In other words, I can handle it.

For real – we can post it on Youtube. I’ll sort out some dates, assign some pages, and pose some questions.

Who’s in?



The Commercial Landscape at Gettysburg

The very first time I visited Gettysburg, with my UCLA undergraduate class…way back in 2001, I was particularly struck by the commercialism of the battle. Everything, or nearly so, is geared to selling that fight. I suppose I understand. After all, the town itself is nearly completely surrounded by a national park, and thus cannot expand into other areas of the marketplace. Its main attraction of course, is tourism, and businesses have responded accordingly.

This academic year, I am taking my own class to Gettysburg. As part of the experience, we are going to spend some time examining the commercial landscape. A few questions I expect them to tackle: at what point (if any) does tourism trivialize the struggles of those who  fought at and lived in Gettysburg in 1863? If you looked only at the commercial landscape, would you understand any of the issues that had been at stake during the war? Similarly, could you tell who won the battle by looking at the commercial landscape? When visiting the park visitor center, what are the dividing lines between consumer culture and history?

That should certainly keep them busy for a few hours – I am open to your suggestions as well.

With compliments,


Americana. Public History. Historical Memory.