Stephen E. Ambrose has enjoyed a brilliant career as a historian. In the past three decades, he has published a flood of books, on topics ranging from World War II to the lives and presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon to the explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He now enjoys the status of an éminence grise, secure in his achievements and honors, and appears regularly as an authority on National Public Radio and on PBS documentaries. Although Ambrose shows no signs of slowing down, he has reached a point in life where it is fitting for him to take stock of his work—hence his slim volume of essays, Americans at War. The essays are as varied as the subjects Ambrose has addressed over the course of his career. They run from an appreciation of Ulysses S. Grant’s generalship at Vicksburg to a revisionist appraisal of George Armstrong Custer through essays dealing with various aspects of World War II and Vietnam, culminating in a meditation on the future of war. They offer the reader a succinct precis of Ambrose’s scholarly interests. Much more important, they offer clear insight into Ambrose’s vision of history and the historical enterprise.
In a brief introduction, Ambrose recounts how he became a historian. He graduated from high school just as the Korean War ended. Rather than entering the Army, as he expected to do, Ambrose enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. The son of a doctor, he assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, but introductory chemistry and physics undermined the charm of medicine for Ambrose. He succumbed instead to the allure of history. The history department at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950’s was staffed by men at the head of their fields. Many were gifted teachers. Outstanding for Ambrose was William B. Hesseltine, an authority on nineteenth century America. Hesseltine lectured brilliantly on the Civil War. When the young Ambrose questioned some of his judgments, Hesseltine challenged his student to prove him wrong; out of the exchange, a historian was born. Ambrose became enraptured by the drama of the past and the pleasures to be had in revealing its riches. As an undergraduate, he talked his way into Hesseltine’s graduate seminar. He traveled to Louisiana State University to earn an M.A. degree under the tutelage of T. Harry Williams, another Hesseltine student, then returned to the University of Wisconsin to complete his Ph.D. under Hesseltine’s direction.
Ambrose learned many lessons from Hesseltine. Above all, he came away with the conviction that people, not impersonal forces, make history. Hesseltine was a “great man” historian; he held that the past was the record of human decision and action. He argued that behind every social or economic phenomenon could be found the human energy of a leader. In many ways, this was an old- fashioned point of view, even in the 1950’s. From the nineteenth century onward, waves of intellectual convention have offered a variety of explanations for historical development, from the zeitgeist of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel through the economic determinism of Karl Marx to the sociological interpretations of Max Weber. Grand theories of historical causality also provide the cerebral appeal of holding out codes that offer the promise of deciphering the complexities of the historical record. Hesseltine would have none of this. For Hesseltine, the Civil War was not the result of a clash of discordant economies or social systems; it was instead a war brought on by the fallibility of men and resolved through the labors of individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
In carrying on in the tradition of his teacher, Ambrose has defied academic fashion. He has never won the reputation of being on the “cutting edge” of his profession. What Ambrose has lost in academic cachet, however, he has gained in intellectual substance. His emphasis on the human element in history puts him in a great tradition of historical writing reaching back to the Greek and Roman origins of the discipline. Ambrose has always been engaged in a moral as well as a scholarly enterprise. His work addresses fundamental questions about human character and the nature of human choice. Ambrose’s books capture the drama of historical experience. The subjects of his investigations are actors, responsible moral agents who enjoy or suffer the consequences of their decisions. As with a good play, the theme of one of Ambrose’s books may be broadly comic or tragic, but the mainspring of the action always lies in the hearts of the...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)