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Book Review: Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose is an author who should need no introduction. If you’re a history buff like me you’ve encountered his works before. He’s been an executive producer on Band of Brothers, served as an advisor in Saving Private Ryan and wrote numerous literary works on World War II including Eagles Nest, Band of Brothers, and D-Day among many others. He is well researched, and in reading through his footnotes extremely thorough. Unfortunately, he’s also since passed in 2002. This was my first introduction to his work outside of seeing his touches on the silver screen for years.

Firstly I’ll have to thank Steve V and his buddy on Twitter for recommending the book to me while I was searching out something on the American West, Mountain Men, and particularly Lewis and Clark. Luckily enough my wife had finished it not just a few months ago, so we had a copy kicking around the house unbeknownst to me.

Let me say that this book is a tome. It’s 484 pages long not counting appendices and bibliography, extremely well researched, heavily footnoted, and quotes directly from various source material including letters from Thomas Jefferson, Lewis, Clark, and others. Mr. Ambrose chronicles the various sources and weaves together the adventure from Washington to St. Louis, up and over the Rockies to the Pacific and back. Before there was There and Back Again a Hobbit’s tale there was Lewis and Clark, trekking into the great unknown. Native Americans, surly government bureaucrats, uncharted territory, this book has everything written as if it were meant for screen.

Sick of Sic-ing

Where the book quotes source material to really envelope you into the story, the modern reader will notice spelling errors to a large degree. Other authors who helped prepare and share the Lewis and Clark journals for publication edited and fixed spelling errors. Just assume a magical (sic) around every quoted text, meaning so written. I may have developed a twitch reading each of Lewis’s 38 spellings of mosquitoes, but the man had other things on his mind when writing of the day’s labors by candlelight.

Another thing that was not entirely clear whether it was Ambrose or the Captains Lewis and Clark but there were direct quotes that made gratuitous use of “&c.”, shorthand for etc, in turn short hand for et cetera. This became maddening once on the expedition itself, but based on the quotes they were not added by the author — the captains just didn’t find additional detail relevant to their reports for that day.

The Corps of Discovery

While the beginning and end of the book take a while to spin up and spin down there are many valuable insights into how the trip was prepared for, and how the journals were ultimately published. The build up is agonizingly slow but details the type of thought that both Merriweather Lewis and Thomas Jefferson put into the actual expedition, how they chose to staff the Corps of Discovery, and how they were outfitted at the time of departure.

By the time you’re just about sick of the trips between Philadelphia, Washington, and Pittsburgh and hearing of the trials and tribulations associated with manning the expedition it’s underway. From there it’s nonstop adventure that made me nostalgic for donning a coonskin cap and enjoying my computer lab time playing Oregon Trail during grade school.

Once the book gets going, and admittedly the buildup is somewhat slow, the story flows so quickly you’ll hardly realize you’ve read nearly 500 pages. The adventure is nearly non-stop — you’ll wonder what took Merriweather Lewis so long to try and get the journals published, it’s a story worth telling.

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Last modified: April 28, 2020