The most transformative history books with a fresh look into the past

John Koopman III Author Of George Washington at War - 1776
By John Koopman III

The Books I Picked & Why

The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny

By Victor Davis Hanson

Book cover of The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny

Why this book?

Victor Davis Hanson, a PhD classics professor and historian, puts forth a fascinating account of three military leaders who brought an end to powers who held people in bondage. Which three? 

Epaminondas broke the power of Sparta by freeing the Helots. The Spartans held the Helots in slavery to do all the farming so they could focus on military training. Epaminondas not only defeated the Spartans in battle, but he also brought an end to the slavery that empowered them.

William Tecumseh Sherman, in his famous march to the sea, broke the Confederacy. When all seemed lost for Lincoln, word came like a thunderbolt from Sherman that, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Shermans Army of the West proved that the South could be defeated. This bringing an end to slavery.   

George Patton, “…you will continue your victorious course to end that tyranny…” Hanson speculates that the war could have been over in the fall of 1944 if Patton had been allowed to continue into Germany. Hundreds of thousands could have been saved from the gas chambers.

Hanson expertly covers these three fascinating leaders from different time periods. All tactical geniuses that brought innovation to the battlefield. But what made them unique was that it was not only victory that they brought, but freedom to oppressed peoples.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon

By Mary V. Thompson

Book cover of The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon

Why this book?

Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson has written what will become the definitive book on slavery at George Washington's home. The book puts you in the place of an enslaved person, what their daily life was like. Throughout his life Washington struggled with slavery, he wanted it to end. Finally in his will, he freed his slaves. Sending a message to the country that slavery must end. There were those who were angered by this action, documented in the book. One contemporary said it was “the…worst act of his public life.” There were former slaves that thought differently. Over thirty years after Washington’s death eleven African American men were observed making repairs to Washington’s tomb. When asked about it by a visitor to Mount Vernon, it was discovered that they were former slaves of Washington freed in his will. They had volunteered their time for the memory of a man “who had been more than a father to them.”

Mary Thompson does not pull any punches. She gives a very balanced view of slavery at Mount Vernon. The harsh realities are covered, as well as little-known facts. Slaves did earn money in different ways, raised their own animals, some hunted game with firearms. There are extensive tables in the appendix listing the names of slaves. A must-read book for those who want to understand slavery in the period.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

George Washington: A Life in Books

By Kevin J. Hayes

Book cover of George Washington: A Life in Books

Why this book?

In Kevin J. Hayes's book, we learn what Washington's reading habits were. For instance, it is known that he read the classic Gulliver’s Travels. How could that be known you might ask? Hayes got access to the original books in Washington’s library. He found a pattern. Looking through the books page by page he found editorial marks and corrections. Washington was a natural editor. Looking through Gulliver’s Travels Hayes found the tell-tale editorial marks, therefor he knew Washington had read it.

It is known from Washington’s writings that he owned many military textbooks. During the Revolution he asked the man managing Mount Vernon to inventory the books in the library. None of the military books were listed, therefor Washington traveled with them in the campaign.

Not surprisingly there are many books on agriculture. But one of the things I found of interest was that his favorite type of leisure reading was travel books. These were popular in the 18th century, a chance to visit exotic places without going there. The book by Hayes gives an interesting insight into how the father of our country thought by what he read.  

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

General George Washington: A Military Life

By Edward G. Lengel

Book cover of General George Washington: A Military Life

Why this book?

Washington historian Edward G. Lengel's book focuses only on his life in the military. George Washington begins his military career at age 21 in 1753 with the colonial rank of Major. He was sent by the governor of Virginia to deliver a letter to the French commander of a fort that was on property contested by the King of England. Washington and a small party traveled the wilds of the Ohio Country, modern-day western Pennsylvania. In this epic journey, young Washington almost loses his life twice. Washington is later involved in the first skirmish of the French and Indian War. A great emphasis in the book is of course his time as General in the American Revolution.  

The final chapter is critical. Lengel rates Washington's abilities as a commander. Time and time again, British General Howe defeats him in battle with a surprise flank attack. But Washington always found a way out to fight another day. Many accused Washington of indecisiveness. One of his strengths was bravery in battle. To quote Lengel, “On hearing gunfire and experiencing the adrenaline surge that came with it, Washington typically ceased equivocating and acted with aplomb.”  For the military history buff, this book is a must-read. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Washington: A Life

By Ron Chernow

Book cover of Washington: A Life

Why this book?

I find Ron Chernow’s biography to be the most informative and comprehensive. It is quite a tome at over 800 pages, but worth the read. Chernow has fascinating insights into his character. Washington had a temper that he sought to control. Even in that, he made an impression on people. From the introduction of the book, “His contemporaries admired him not because he was a plaster saint or an empty uniform but because they sensed his unseen power.”

We see Washington develop over his life from early childhood. The loss of his father at age eleven brought him closer to his brother Lawrence, fourteen years his senior. Lawrence became a father figure to him.

After service in the French and Indian War, Washington married Martha Custis. There was true love in the marriage. She spent every winter with him throughout the eight years of the Revolution. She came with two children from her first marriage. Washington treated them as if they were his own.

As we follow Washington’s career: planter, soldier, statesman, we learn about him from many angles. Insights from friends, family members, fellow soldiers, and politicians, reveal his personality to the reader. In the closing chapter Chernow sums up Washington's greatness: “George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him.”   

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists