The best books about American battlefields

Edward T. Linenthal Author Of Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields
By Edward T. Linenthal

Who am I?

I remember well my first visit to Gettysburg on a high school trip. I had trouble expressing what I felt until I read the words of a battlefield guide who said that he often sensed a “brooding omnipresence.” I have often felt such presences across the historic landscape in the U.S. and elsewhere. I am now Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, and former editor of the Journal Of American History. I have also written Preserving Memory: The Struggle To Create America’s Holocaust Museum; The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City In American Memory, and co-edited American Sacred Space; History Wars: The Enola Gay And Other Battles For The American Past; and Landscapes Of 9/11: A Photographer’s Journey.


I wrote...

Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields

By Edward T. Linenthal,

Book cover of Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields

What is my book about?

This book is about processes of veneration, defilement, and redefinition at Lexington and Concord, the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Little Bighorn, and Pearl Harbor. These “biographies” help us appreciate these sites as both ceremonial centers and civil spaces where Americans of various ideological persuasions come to struggle over the nature of heroism, the meaning of war, the significance of martial sacrifice, and the importance of preserving and expanding the patriotic landscape.

This second edition contains a 30-page epilogue that offers updated material—as of 1993--on each site, perhaps most significantly a detailed account of the 50th anniversary ceremonies at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

The books I picked & why

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A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

By Ari Kelman,

Book cover of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

Why this book?

There are so many superb biographies of American sacred sites—battlefields among them—it is very hard to select just one! Historian Ari Kelman’s book comes first to mind. It immerses readers into the dramatic struggles among stakeholders: Native American communities, landowners, the National Park Service, to situate correctly the site and the history of this horrific event. Kelman’s story illustrates eloquently how the American historic landscape can successfully portray even our nation’s “indigestible” histories.


Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy

By Kenneth E. Foote,

Book cover of Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy

Why this book?

Foote’s book engages the biographies of some battlefields, but I also list it because it goes beyond to include in his examination of the historic landscape sites of natural disasters, murder sites, and sites of terrorism. I find most helpful Foote’s categories: sanctification, designation, rectification, and obliteration. A marvelous, distinctive book.


Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies

By Sanford Levinson,

Book cover of Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies

Why this book?

Levinson’s book does not focus on traditional battle sites. Rather, it thoughtfully introduces readers to battles that take place over clashing expressions of public memory, particularly memorial controversies, including clashes over name changes and monument removal. I think readers will appreciate his thoughtful treatment of the vexing issues that have swirled around the appropriate location of Confederate memorials. Well before the recent push to remove such memorials from public space, Levinson offered readers various options for dealing with such volatile issues. His book is an insightful and timely guide into the battlefields of public memory.


Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory

By Andrew Lichtenstein,

Book cover of Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory

Why this book?

Photographer Andrew Lichtenstein and historian Alex Lichtenstein offer readers compelling visual expression of the instability of public memory. The authors ask who and what gets remembered and forgotten, and where and how? What is consigned to oblivion and why? What do such choices reveal about what national stories we prize and those we find uncomfortable, even indigestible? The powerful photographs suggest how volatile historic sites can be marked by absence as well as presence.


The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War

By Mark M. Smith,

Book cover of The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War

Why this book?

Historian Mark M. Smith is one of the pioneers of the truly exciting field of sensory history. Smith’s book is a model for how the next generations of historians can expand our understanding of the power and spectacle of war through a focus on all the senses. Smith’s chapters pick a particular sense at a particular Civil War site—my favorite is “Cornelia Hancock’s Sense of Smell,” which helps us appreciate how the assaults of transgressive smells lasted far beyond the three days of combat at Gettysburg.  Each chapter is carefully crafted to illustrate how an assault of the senses threatened the stability of what registered as “civilization” for the Civil War generation. After reading several of Smith’s books, I found myself much more attentive to the sensory dimension of any historical experience. Early in my tenure as editor of the Journal Of American History, I asked Smith to be a guest editor for a special section of a JAH issue, “The Senses in American History,” that remains a favorite of mine.


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