Stephen Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose. Picture courtesy courtesy of

Historical Importance of Stephen Ambrose: Stephen Ambrose was a major historian of the late 20th century. In his lifetime, he wrote over thirty books, covering a wide variety of historical topics. Ambrose believed that history should be interesting as well as accurate, which made him a very popular author.

Dates: January 10, 1936 -- October 13, 2002

Also Known As: Stephen Edward Ambrose

Overview of Stephen Ambrose:

I have to admit, Stephen Ambrose was an idol of mine. During a time when historians were usually thought of as quiet men sitting behind desks writing only for other historians, Ambrose managed to break through the stereotype. He found a way to bring history to everyday people. He made studying history a popular pastime.

It seemed that nearly ever time I went to the bookstore, I would find a fascinating new book by Ambrose. Even if it wasn't on a topic I am usually interested in, by the time I picked it up, his friendly prose and interesting facts drew me in every time. And did you ever hear him speak? His husky voice (now I realize, probably caused by the decades of smoking) was mesmerizing as his passion for the people and the past made history come alive.

The Early Years of Stephen Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose was born on January 10, 1936, in Decatur, Illinois but spent his childhood in the small town of Whitewater, Wisconsin.

The town was a little too small for Ambrose, so he was excited about heading off to college to study pre-med, preparing to follow in his father's footsteps and become a medical doctor.

Ambrose Finds a Mentor

Stephen Ambrose's future changed drastically when he took a history class from William B. Hesseltine entitled "Representative Americans." Fascinated by Hesseltine's lecturing style, which made the story come alive, Ambrose quickly changed his major to history and graduated with a B.A.

in 1957.

Ambrose continued studying history at the Louisiana State University where he earned his Masters degree in 1958. He then returned to the University of Wisconsin and in 1963, earned his Ph.D. in History.

It was while studying with Hesseltine at the University of Wisconsin, that Ambrose began perfecting the prose that made him popular. Hesseltine had firm rules about writing such as "abandon chronology at your peril; use the active voice; avoid adverbs whenever possible; be frugal with adjectives, as they are but the salt and pepper for the meat (nouns)." *

Teaching and Writing

Ambrose used this knowledge to teach history and to write books. From 1960 to 1995, Ambrose taught university-level history courses mostly at the University of New Orleans and Johns Hopkins University.

As early as 1961 - two years before he received his doctorate - Ambrose had written his first book, Wisconsin Boy in Dixie, followed closely by his second book, Halleck, Lincoln's Chief of Staff. Ambrose's book on Halleck caught the eye of former President Dwight Eisenhower. Liking Ambrose's writing style, Eisenhower asked him to be his official biographer.

Ambrose's Books

Making history interesting is what made Ambrose popular.

Throughout his career, he wrote over 30 books about history. Ambrose started out as a Civil War historian but also covered such varied topics as Richard Nixon, George A. Custer, Lewis and Clark, and the transcontinental railroad - to name just a few. However, Ambrose is best known for his work on World War II.

No War Experience

Alhough perhaps you wouldn't know it from reading his books, which bring the reader to the action, Ambrose never fought in a war. He was a good ten years too young to fight in World War II and missed the Korean War by just months. However, growing up, Ambrose admired those who had fought for their country.

Ambrose wrote numerous books about World War II, most of which focused on the soldiers themselves. Several of his books were so widely read that they became best sellers.

Stephen Ambrose Founded the National D-Day Museum

In addition to writing books about the soldiers of World War II, Ambrose founded the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, which opened its doors on June 6, 2000. The museum covers all the amphibious invasions of World War II and is meant to be a tribute to the people who fought in that war.


Unfortunately, however, Ambrose had come under attack for plagiarism over the last year of his life. He was accused of using the exact words of other historians and not quoting them.

Ambrose responded to these criticisms. He admitted that he may have accidentally left out a few quotation marks, but pointed out that the sentences in question had been footnoted. To remedy the situation, he readily agreed to add the quotation marks in the next editions of the books in question.


The accusations of plagiarism came at a bad time for Ambrose. In April 2002, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, caused by his long-time smoking habit.

Knowing he had only a short time to live, Ambrose modeled his remaining few months on Ulysses S. Grant who wrote his memoirs while suffering from throat cancer. Ambrose's memoir, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, was released on November 19, 2002.

Around 4 a.m. on Sunday, October 13, 2002, Stephen Ambrose passed away at age 66 at the Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Ambrose was survived by his wife, Moira, and his five children: Hugh, Andy, Barry, Grace and Stephenie.

* Stephen Ambrose, Stephen Ambrose Official Web Site (

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Stephen Ambrose." ThoughtCo, Nov. 25, 2014, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2014, November 25). Stephen Ambrose. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Stephen Ambrose." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).