'A Tribute to the American Spirit'

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, January 2003 | Go to article overview

'A Tribute to the American Spirit'


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. 267 pages; index; $24.

Much like the men and women about whom he wrote for nearly four decades, the late Stephen Ambrose provokes criticism and admiration. With widespread allegations of plagiarism over his history of the 15th Air Force and Ambrose's subsequent acknowledgment of the intellectual capital that he owed several authors, it has become highly fashionable to denigrate one of America's most prominent historians as a "popular purveyor of poorly researched history." In To America, Ambrose returns to his roots and what he does best-- tell a story. In his own words, "The last five letters of the word 'history' tell us that it is an account of the past that is about people and what they did, which is what makes it the most fascinating of subjects."

In essence, Ambrose's posthumous, memoir-based book is a tribute to the American spirit. His intent is clear: to tell stories "about Americans from the past, what they did, how they did it, with what results."

By concentrating on some of his most admired Americans, Ambrose begins his story with a discussion of the nation's Founding Fathers and then cleverly weaves his private journey through an examination of American history.

Ambrose turns to his adopted home of New Orleans to discuss the impact of Andrew Jackson's great triumph in January 1815. Commanding a coalition army of American regulars, Caribbean pirates, Creoles, Cajuns, transAppalachian frontiersmen and "some free men of color," Jackson crushed an invading British army and preserved both American independence and his nation's westward expansion.

Chapters on manifest destiny and the Indian wars trace Ambrose's own travels across the country. From the Mississippi River to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Ambrose describes the men and places that changed his life. When visiting Wounded Knee, he decided to write a dual biography of Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer.

In the process, Ambrose's own views on history evolved. For instance, Ambrose realized that the American Indians were not "in the way; rather, they were an integral part of the scene." Without them, Lewis and Clark would have failed. Also, the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II greatly contributed to victory in the Pacific. The examples are endless.

Reflecting on how he was taught and how he taught American history, Ambrose also presents revealing portraits of Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon, presidents whose purpose and resolve were frequently questioned by their contemporaries.

Ambrose characterizes Grant as a president who did more good for the country than most generals or presidents even approach. Until he ultimately gave in to pressure by white supremacists and Southern Democrats, Grant attempted to do "more for the African-American community than any president before Lyndon Johnson."

As for Roosevelt, Ambrose recalls how his early views of Roosevelt as an unabashed imperialist evolved into the recognition that there was much more to Roosevelt than showmanship and false claims. …

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