The American Revolution is quite obviously a very broad topic. It would require a huge quantity of books, even watered down to the “essentials,” to adequately cover all facets of the war. The hypothetical library would have to contain volumes on politics, biographies of major and minor players, continent-wide strategies, battles, tactics, equipment and supply.
The choices of what to include on the shelves depends much on personal interests, of course. A “short” list follows of some of what I have found useful. Some essential books not included here were included in the recent Journal of the American Revolution article, Revolutionary War 101: Beginning Books.
Generally speaking I favor primary sources over secondary sources. When looking at any secondary source book I always look at the source citations to see where the author is getting his information. If the citations reveal that the author is relying on other secondary sources the book usually drops in my estimation. Quality research requires seeking out the facts from the primary sources themselves rather than parroting what others have already said… which may, or may not be accurate.
Andrlik, Todd, Reporting the Revolutionary War, Before It Was History, It Was News, Naperville, IL, Sourcebooks, 2012. There has never before been anything like this book. It is a combination of secondary sources and newspapers which are primary sources. Very high resolution, full color images of the original newspapers of the day allow the reader to step back in time and experience the Revolution as the colonists did, and as it unfolded in real-time. The modern reader witnesses events via the only mass media of the period, flavored with errors of fact, propaganda and fascinating accuracy. Essays from dozens of modern historians add clarity to the picture the newspapers present. This book is a magnificent idea wonderfully executed.
Babits, Lawrence E., A Devil of a Whipping, the Battle of Cowpens, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1998. While there are huge numbers of books on specific battles nothing compares to this work on Cowpens. Babits has very cleverly used veterans pension statements as well as other primary sources to place individual men and units on the battlefield at specific times and places. What was witnessed by these participants and how Babits interprets it makes this a model of historical research. This book could almost be listed along with the primary sources. Excellent.
Boatner, Mark, M., III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Mechanicsburg, PA., Stackpole Books, 1966. This massive tome comes in handy when one needs to hunt down a person or incident quickly.
Fischer, David Hackett, Paul Revere’s Ride, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994. Far more than the midnight ride of Paul Revere, this book looks deep into the coming of the Revolution from both the American and the British perspective. As the story is told, in fascinating style, the tension mounts until it overflows with violence….and Paul Revere’s fame. Outstanding.
Fischer, David Hackett, Washington’s Crossing, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004. This riveting account of the disasters at New York, the retreat across New Jersey, and the hopeless position of the tattered remnants of the American cause is must reading. The attack on Trenton, which is so incredible one could only imagine it as fiction, is high tension at its best.
Flood, Charles Bracelen, Rise, and Fight Again, Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976. This book is filled with defeats and blunders of the American cause. Of particular interest is the little known Penobscot Expedition that was a travesty of leadership…or, lack of leadership. The main culprit was Paul Revere. However, despite all these failings the rebellion survived.
McCullough, David, 1776, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2005. While covering much of the same ground as Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, this too must be read. The desperate plight of the American army, and the entire revolution, rests in the hands of a few amateur American generals and their amateur soldiers. History presented as only David McCullough can.
McGuire, Thomas J., The Philadelphia Campaign, Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia, Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 2006. And, the companion volume, The Philadelphia Campaign, Germantown and the Roads to Valley Forge, Stackpole Books, 2007. These books cover the Philadelphia campaign of 1777 thoroughly. Regrettably, the books need maps.
Royster, Charles, A Revolutionary People at War, the Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1979. This is an insightful look at the Americans and what they thought during the war. This time of extreme stress effected people in many ways and their responses varied over time and circumstances.
Spring, Matthew H., With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, the British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. This is an outstanding look at the British army and how they fought the war. If one visualizes automatons marching shoulder to shoulder against keened eyed Americans behind rocks and trees then this book is a must read. It is an eye opener and one of the best books I’ve read in years. Highly recommended.
Wilson, David K., The Southern Strategy, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2005. This work, along with Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse, cover the war in the South very well.
There are far too many biographies to list. These are some of my favorites.
Alden, John Richard, General Gage in America, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1948.
Flexner, James Thomas, Washington, the Indispensable Man, Boston, Little, Brown & Company, 1969. This is perhaps the best single volume history of Washington.
Forbes, Esther, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942.
Lengel, Edward G., General George Washington, a Military Life, New York, Random House, 2005. This fascinating book provides an excellent view of Washington as he learned to be a military strategist, tactician and leader.
Van Doren, Carl, Benjamin Franklin, 1938. Reprinted many times.
Wallace, Willard M., Traitorous Hero, the Life & Fortunes of Benedict Arnold, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1954. This complicated man who went from towering heights of heroism to becoming a household name synonymous with treason is very well told.
Primary Sources: Personal Accounts/Papers/Autobiography
Andre, Major John, Major Andre’s Journal, Tarrytown, NY, reprinted Arno Press, 1968.
Baurmeister, Adjutant General Major, ed. Bernard A. Uhlendorf, Revolution in America, Confidential Letters and Journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1957.
Chilton, Captain John, ed. Michael Cecere, They Behaved Like Soldiers, Captain John Chilton and the Third Virginia Regiment, 1775-1778, Bowie, Maryland, Heritage Books, 2004.
Clinton, Sir Henry, ed. William B. Willcox, The American Rebellion, Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1954.
Collins, James Potter, ed. John M. Roberts, original title: A Revolutionary Soldier, current title: Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, Clinton, La, Feliciana Democrat, 1859, reprinted Ayer Company Publishers, 2002.
Commager, Henry Steele and Morris, Richard B., eds., The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, the Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, New York, Harper & Row, 1975.
Cumming, William P. and Rankin, Hugh, eds., The Fate of a Nation, the American Revolution through Contemporary Eyes, London, Phaidon Press, 1975.
Draper, Lyman C., Kings Mountain and its Heroes, Cincinnati, 1881, reprinted Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore 1983.
Dorson, Richard M., ed., America Rebels, Narratives of the Patriots, New York, Pantheon Books, 1953.
Ewald, Captain Johann , ed. Joseph P. Tustin, Diary of the American War, A Hessian Journal, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979. This well written account from the Hessian viewpoint provides a description that is not well known.
Franklin, Benjamin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Garden City, NY Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.
Greenman, Jeremiah, Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, eds. Robert Bray and Paul Bushnell, DeKalb, Il, Northern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Hagist, Don N., British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution, Westholme Publishing, 2012.
Lamb, Roger, ed. Don N. Hagist, A British Soldier’s Story, Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution, Ballindalloch Press, 2004. This man experienced a great deal and relates it very well.
Lee, Henry, ed. Robert E. Lee, The American Revolution in the South, original title Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, New York, University Publishing Company, 1869, reprinted Arno Press, 1969. A caution: while Lee wrote about his own activities he also wrote about events where he was not present.
Martin, Joseph Plumb, ed. George F. Scheer, Private Yankee Doodle, Boston, Little Brown, 1962. This wonderful book gives a war-long view from the soldier’s perspective. It is a must read.
Moultrie, William, Memoirs of the American Revolution, New York, David Longworth, 1802, reprinted, Arno Press, 1968.
Peckham, Howard H., ed., Sources of American Independence, Selected Manuscripts from the Collections of the William L. Clements Library, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978. 2 volumes. Includes: Confronting Rebellion: Private Correspondence of Lord Barrington with General Gage, 1765-1775; William Knox Asks What is Fit to be Done With America; The Clinton-Parker Controversy Over British Failure at Charleston and Rhode Island; Journal of the Brunswick Corps in American Under General von Riedesel; An Officer out of His Time: Correspondence of Major Patrick Ferguson, 1779-1780; Puritan Revolutionary: Selected Letters of Edmund Quincy; Vengeance: The Court-Martial of Captain Richard Lippincott, 1782.
Tarleton, Banastre, History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. This work by “Bloody Ban” has been out of print for a long time it is available online from www.archive.org. It is fascinating to read what Tarleton writes but one must keep in mind that he is seemingly keeping himself the hero of his own story as he writes a self-serving memoir. What Tarleton writes must be verified with other sources.
Thatcher, James, M.D., Military Journal of the American Revolution 1775-1783, Boston, Richardson & Lord, 1823, reprinted Corner House Historical Publications, Gansevoort, NY, 1998.
Wheeler, Richard, ed., Voices of 1776, Greenwich, CT, Fawcett, 1972.
While I’m running out of space I’m not running out of books. The list could go on and on. Just because a book is not listed does not mean that I do not think it worthy. I have favorites that are not listed and I am sure that readers will post comments about their favorites as well.
Happy reading, everyone.
Great list — EXCEPT you left out some of the superb (for diverse reasons) 19th century histories; such as those by Benson J. Lossing, Frank Moore, Henry P. Johnston, Samuel Adams Drake, and more.
However, I did also want to take the occasion to ask if you could post here at JAR your excellent article on Anthony Wayne’s Georgia campaign of 1782 — which article now is no longer available at the “American Revolution” magazine website (seeing that that site has been discontinued.) If possible, please do! It’s a most useful piece on a rare topic.
WTS – I am a particular fan of Henry P. Johnston and Benson Lossing. They are excellent. Johnston’s work with Harlem Heights is a favorite. I’m delighted that you enjoyed Anthony Wayne’s Georgia Campaign of 1782. Our policy is not to publish articles that have appeared elsewhere. As you may have guessed from my Wayne articles he is of particular interest to me.
Thank you for putting this list together, Hugh, and for including my book. What a great honor. As an 18th century newspaper geek, I’d like to add Arthur M. Schlesinger’s Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776, published by Alfred A. Knopf (1958). This volume helped me realize the pivotal role newspapers played in making America and provided inspiration for my own project, Reporting the Revolutionary War. Also, for more of a 101, I highly recommend Gordon S. Wood’s The American Revolution: A History (Modern Library series). Ray Raphael’s Founders and First American Revolution are great, too.
Todd. My wife got me your book for Christmas. What a treasure! Thank you for the idea of a “news print” book. I just love it.
So great to hear that, Rusty. I appreciate your kind words (and your wife’s gift idea).
Greetings Hugh, I ran across a very well researched and written biography of Horatio Gates the other day. A fellow named Paul David Nelson whose work is:
General Horatio Gates
Nelson also wrote an excellent biography of Anthony Wayne. I’ll check out his Gates biog. Thanks!
Has anyone read Edmund Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89? I recently read The Junto blog’s review and it sounds like it might be something for the Essential Library!
This is a great list but you are forgetting one book. Redcoats and Rebels by Christopher Hibbert provides a fascinating look at the American Revolution through British eyes…which is essential to fully grasp just what the Revolution meant to everyone involved.
Revolutionary War Library
Bailyn, Bernard. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Breen, T.H. American Insurgents, American Patriots.
Breen, T.H. The Marketplace of Revolution.
Calloway, Colin. The American Revolution in Indian Country.
Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practices, 1763-1789.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.
Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776.
Morgan, Edmund and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution.
Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom. (Included due to the need to understand how slavery in the colonies developed)
Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America.
Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.
Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution.
I probably should point out that we should break down the period and state what is the Revolution, what era is it, and what do we include? Is it just the lead up to the Declaration of do we include the War of Independence? Do we cover the military history if so? What about the period of time between the end of the war and the creation and ratification of the Constitution? If we include that how far do we go? Is the Constitution the end of one period and beginning of another? Should we divide our library into sections such as political, military, domestic, foreign, class, gender, race, economic, etc.? Where do encyclopedias and broad surveys fit in? What about primary sources and earlier historical works like Ramsey, Warren, Bancroft, Beard, Becker, Adams, and Parkman?
What is really interesting about compiling a list of books is discovering just how complicated this period of time was. No wonder it is so hard to define.
Jimmy (and others) –
I agree with so many of the books mentioned. I wasn’t “creating a library” I was trying to list only the “essentials.” Now,…if we were to create the “ideal library”…THAT would be fun! Thanks for the comments, everyone! So much to read and so little time.
Boundaries would definitely be helpful. I would like to see “Essentials” restricted to the 20 to 25 must-read books by a general audience. If you were stranded on an island, and could only have 25 books about the American Revolution with you, which 25 would they be? And they can’t bore me to death since, on the island, I’m already slowly fading away from exposure and malnutrition.
Are we going to include the Constitutional Convention? If so, I must say that Richard Beeman’s “Plain Honest Men” is exceptional. I still haven’t read a book concerning the Convention that is so well written, researched, and organized. It is a delight for laypeople (such as myself), and I suppose professional historians of the Founding era as well.
Such a delight to find more books on a beloved subject. Each book I have read brings me to a closer understanding of our beginnings. There is one booklet that stands out for me from all the rest, The Battle Road, Expedition to Lexington and Concord by Charles H. Bradford originally printed in 1976. At 89 pages it can hardly be called a tome on the subject but it is in those pages that I learned all I really need to know, there it tells us that we won our independence because we belonged to each other.
While there are are far more listed here that I’ve not read, one that I have and recommend highly is:
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas
My top secondary sources (as of this date) are in no order (aka my desert island books):
Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin”
James Gaines’ “For Liberty And Glory”
D. H. Fischer’s “Washington’s Crossing”
William Hallahan’s “The Day the American Revolution Began”
David McCullough’s ” John Adams”
Glenn F. Williams’ “Year of the Hangman”