Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952

Stephen Edward Ambrose’s books are among the most popular historical narratives written for general readers. Ambrose was the second of three sons born to Stephen Hedges Ambrose, a family physician, and Rosepha Trippe Ambrose. He grew up and attended public school in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Two years of high school Latin,...

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Stephen Edward Ambrose’s books are among the most popular historical narratives written for general readers. Ambrose was the second of three sons born to Stephen Hedges Ambrose, a family physician, and Rosepha Trippe Ambrose. He grew up and attended public school in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Two years of high school Latin, according to Ambrose, taught him the importance of verbs and proper grammar.

After graduating from high school, Ambrose enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and planned to join his father’s practice at Whitewater after acquiring his medical degree. At the university, he was a member of the naval ROTC as a freshman and the army ROTC as a sophomore. However, Ambrose switched his major from pre-med to history after taking an American History course from Professor William B. Hesseltine, an effective teacher and scholar. The study of history became Ambrose’s passion.

Ambrose earned his B.A. degree in 1957 and in the same year married Judith Dorlester; she died in 1966. In 1958, Ambrose received his M.A. degree at Louisiana State University, where he studied under the eminent historian T. Harry Williams, who served as another role model for Ambrose. Returning to the University of Wisconsin, Ambrose completed his Ph.D. in 1963, studying under his old professor, Hesseltine.

From 1960 to 1964, Ambrose was an assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University at New Orleans (now the University of New Orleans). He wrote his first book on General Henry Halleck, President Abraham Lincoln’s chief of staff, in 1962. A key event occurred after its publication: President Dwight Eisenhower was impressed with the book and Ambrose’s writing style, so he asked Ambrose to edit his papers. Ambrose eagerly accepted, and this event marked the beginning of decades of research and writing about Eisenhower’s life.

Ambrose took a position as an associate professor of history at The Johns Hopkins University in 1964. In 1969, he became Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the United States Naval War College. In 1970, Ambrose served as Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of War and Peace at Kansas State University. In 1971, he accepted the position of professor of history at the University of New Orleans, retiring from there as professor emeritus in 1995. Other prestigious appointments included Ambrose serving as Mary Ball Washington Professor, University College, Dublin, Ireland (1981); Alumni Distinguished Professor of History, University of New Orleans (1982); visiting professor, University of California at Berkeley (fall, 1986); Howard Johnson Visiting Professor of Military History at the Army War College (fall, 1989); Boyd Professor of History, University of New Orleans (1989); and senior fellow, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis (fall, 1993).

Ambrose achieved many other professional accomplishments. For example, he presented papers at numerous American and European universities, including Harvard, University of Edinburgh, University of Vienna, and the Sorbonne. Ambrose founded the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans in 1983 and the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, which officially opened on June 6, 2000. He was interviewed on National Public Radio and several television programs such as The Today Show, Nightline, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. In addition, Ambrose served as a tour leader of historical excursions of World War II battlefields in Europe and was a historical consultant for the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan and the 1993 PBS program Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. In 2001, HBO televised a miniseries based on Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. He was selected as the honorary chair of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Finally, Ambrose received many awards, such as the National Humanities Award, 1999; the Abraham Lincoln Literary Award, 2000; the Department of the Army Award for distinguished public service, 2000; and the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal from the Department of Defense, 2000.

According to Ambrose, a history professor should be both a good teacher and a good scholar; the two are inseparable. Telling an interesting story is paramount to being successful as a teacher and scholar. Curiosity about historical events motivated Ambrose to develop as a teacher and scholar. He believed historians should explain, illustrate, inform, and entertain their audiences and not be willing to pass unfounded judgments.

Ambrose published more than thirty books. Included among his The New York Times best-sellers are The Wild Blue, Nothing Like It in the World, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, D-Day June 6, 1944, and Undaunted Courage. He liked writing about individuals who symbolize the democratic ideals of the United States, which is reflected in his World War II histories, books on Eisenhower, and studies on the American West. Indeed, the exploits of common soldiers, Eisenhower’s upbringing and natural abilities, the bravery of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the hardworking laborers building the first transcontinental railroad in the United States all demonstrate Ambrose’s strong personal beliefs in the merits of American democratic society. Even Ambrose’s three volumes on Richard Nixon exemplify his quest to examine how the United States’ democratic ideals were challenged by a desperate and complex leader.

Critics of Ambrose declare that his books often lack analysis, romanticize war, neglect primary sources, and omit significant historical events. Charges of plagiarism were also made against Ambrose. In several of his books, including The Wild Blue, Crazy Horse and Custer, and Citizen Soldiers, Ambrose failed to use quotation marks around borrowed passages, even though he cited the sources.

Despite such criticism, Ambrose remained the United States’ best-selling popular historian. He acknowledged the helpful editorial assistance of his second wife, Moira Buckley Ambrose, whom he married in 1967. In April, 2002, Ambrose, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and began undergoing treatment. He completed an autobiography, titled To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, and was working on a book about World War II in the Pacific when he died on October 13, 2002.

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