Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West

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by Stephen E. Ambrose

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From the bestselling author of the definitive book on D-Day comes the definitive book on the most momentous expedition in American history and one of the great adventure stories of all time.

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a voyage up the Missouri River to the Rockies, over the mountains, down the


From the bestselling author of the definitive book on D-Day comes the definitive book on the most momentous expedition in American history and one of the great adventure stories of all time.

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a voyage up the Missouri River to the Rockies, over the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. Lewis was the perfect choice. He endured incredible hardships and saw incredible sights, including vast herds of buffalo and Indian tribes that had had no previous contact with white men. He and his partner, Captain William Clark, made the first map of the trans-Mississippi West, provided invaluable scientific data on the flora and fauna of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and established the American claim to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information about weather, terrain, and medical knowledge at the time to provide a colorful and realistic backdrop for the expedition. Lewis saw the North American continent before any other white man; Ambrose describes in detail native peoples, weather, landscape, science, everything the expedition encountered along the way, through Lewis's eyes.

Lewis is supported by a rich variety of colorful characters, first of all Jefferson himself, whose interest in exploring and acquiring the American West went back thirty years. Next comes Clark, a rugged frontiersman whose love for Lewis matched Jefferson's. There are numerous Indian chiefs, and Sacagawea, the Indian girl who accompanied the expedition, along with the French-Indian hunter Drouillard, the great naturalists of Philadelphia, the French and Spanish fur traders of St. Louis, John Quincy Adams, and many more leading political, scientific, and military figures of the turn of the century.

This is a book about a hero. This is a book about national unity. But it is also a tragedy. When Lewis returned to Washington in the fall of 1806, he was a national hero. But for Lewis, the expedition was a failure. Jefferson had hoped to find an all-water route to the Pacific with a short hop over the Rockies-Lewis discovered there was no such passage. Jefferson hoped the Louisiana Purchase would provide endless land to support farming-but Lewis discovered that the Great Plains were too dry. Jefferson hoped there was a river flowing from Canada into the Missouri-but Lewis reported there was no such river, and thus no U.S. claim to the Canadian prairie. Lewis discovered the Plains Indians were hostile and would block settlement and trade up the Missouri. Lewis took to drink, engaged in land speculation, piled up debts he could not pay, made jealous political enemies, and suffered severe depression.

High adventure, high politics, suspense, drama, and diplomacy combine with high romance and personal tragedy to make this outstanding work of scholarship as readable as a novel.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
KEN BURNS "Stephen Ambrose is that rare breed: a historian with true passion for his subject. Here he takes one of the great, but also one of the most superficially considered, stories in American history and breathes fresh life into it. Lewis comes alive as we've never known him."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS "Only Stephen Ambrose, with his love of the Northwest and his deep understanding of the American past, clould have written this luminous and lyrical book. Undaunted Courage is at once a tale of mythic proportions, a poignant human drama, and an essential piece of our history that allows the reader to be a silent and fascinated passenger on the fateful journey of Lewis and Clark."

DAYTON DUNCAN Author of Out West "Stephen Ambrose had combined his considerable taslents as an historian with his personal enthusiasm for the Lewis and Clark expedition to bring to life one of America's greatest-and most enigmatic-explorers. Undaunted Courage puts you in Meriwether Lewis's moccasins, all the way across the great American West."

The Barnes & Noble Review
Stephen Ambrose's widely acclaimed Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West is the definitive account of the most momentous pioneering effort in our nation's history — the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A distinguished historian, Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information to provide a colorful and realistic backdrop for this journey as seen through Lewis's eyes.

On an adventure spanning three years and traversing the North American continent, Lewis and his expedition confronted incredible hardships and extraordinary revelations. With the help of his partner, Captain William Clark, Lewis made the first map of the trans-Mississippi West, documented unusual species of fauna and flora, and established America's claim to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The paperback edition of Undaunted Courage features two new chapters on Lewis's work as an ethnologist, focusing on his documentation of the Shoshone, Clatsop, and Chinook Indians — tribes never before seen by white settlers.

Drawing from Lewis's private journal, Ambrose follows the explorer's footsteps —from hisyouth and close relationship with Thomas Jefferson through his ventures into vast, wild, and breathtaking lands to his ultimate depression, despair, and suicide. With Ambrose's meticulous research and luminous prose, Undaunted Courage provides a broad social overview of the young American republic and keen psychological insight into an exceptional individual.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ambrose has written prolifically about men who were larger than life: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Colonel Custer. Here he takes on half of the two-headed hero of American exploration: Meriwether Lewis. Ambrose, his wife and five children have followed the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark expedition for 20 summers, in the course of which the explorer has become a friend of the Ambrose family; the author's affection shines through this narrative. Meriwether Lewis, as secretary to Thomas Jefferson and living in the White House for two years, got his education by being apprenticed to a great man. Their friendship is at the center of this account. Jefferson hand-picked Lewis for the great cross-country trek, and Lewis in turn picked William Clark to accompany him. The two men shook hands in Clarksville, Ohio, on October 14, 1803, then launched their expedition. The journals of the expedition, most written by Clark, are one of the treasures of American history. Here we learn that the vital boat is behind schedule; the boat builder is always drunk, but he's the only one available. Lewis acts as surveyor, builder and temperance officer in his effort to get his boat into the river. Alcohol continues to cause him problems both with the men of his expedition and later, after his triumphant return, in his own life, which ended in suicide at the age of 35. Without adding a great deal to existing accounts, Ambrose uses his skill with detail and atmosphere to dust off an icon and put him back on the trail west. History Book Club main selection; BOMC split selection; QPB alternate
Library Journal
It has been 30 years since the last biography of Meriwether Lewis (Richard Dillon's "Meriwether Lewis: A Biography", 1965). Ambrose (Univ. of New Orleans), best known for his histories and biographies of the 1940-90 period, uses the journals and documents that have turned up since then, as well as the traditional sources, to craft a careful and detailed biography of Lewis that will stand as the standard account for some time to come. Ambrose not only recounts the expedition Lewis led with Clark but also explains how Lewis came to head it, how he prepared for this task, and how his life unfolded after he returned to Washington and reported to Jefferson. Specialists will appreciate this biography, but general readers will also be enthralled by Ambrose's well-written account. This book belongs in all libraries. Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
School Library Journal
Though principally a biography of Meriwether Lewis, this narrative also provides fascinating portraits of Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, Sacagawea, and other members of the group of explorers who journeyed from the Ohio River to the Pacific Ocean in the years 1803-1806. While scholarly and well documented, this account is at the same time a great adventure story, and Ambrose generates a sense of excitement and anticipation that mirrors, at least to some degree, the feelings Lewis and Clark must have had as they began their journey. Lewis's intense curiosity about the world around him, his training as a naturalist, and his ability to record what he saw and experienced provide YAs with a fascinating picture of the American frontier in the 19th century. The subject's strengths and weaknesses as a leader are revealed as he and his loyal followers meet every kind of challenge in their search for a navigable water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Ambrose incorporates recent research and new material on the expedition into this history, and includes detailed maps and examples of Lewis's journal entries. An eminently readable resource. Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
Gilbert Taylor
For decades, biographer Ambrose had nursed an ambition to chronicle the "Corps of Discovery," as Lewis and Clark styled their ventures. Hitherto detained by opuses on Ike, Nixon, and D-Day, Ambrose here loosens the reins to his admiration of the duo's fearlessness and skill in braving the unknown, an exploration of which had sunk into obscurity in the 1800s but has since ascended to iconic status in American history. Framed as a biography of Lewis, this work relies heavily on both Lewis' and Clark's famed journals, backed up by the author's personal travels along the Missouri River route from St. Louis to the Pacific. A stimulating tour guide, Ambrose paces the mundane so well with the unusual that readers will be entranced. Not content as a mere recorder of deeds, Ambrose often pauses to assess the military leadership of the explorers, how they negotiated with the Mandan, Sioux, or Nez Perce, and what they reported to Jefferson. Ambrose's epic, a combination of rhapsody and reality, feels like a final glimpse at a pristine Eden before the crowd of trappers and settlers altered it forever. The book clubs are also agog over this, so prepare for many requests.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Youth 1774-1792

From the west-facing window of the room in which Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, one could look out at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an opening to the West that invited exploration. The Virginia Piedmont of 1774 was not the frontier -- that had extended beyond the Allegheny chain of mountains, and a cultured plantation life was nearly a generation old -- but it wasn't far removed. Traces of the old buffalo trail that led up Rockfish River to the Gap still remained. Deer were exceedingly plentiful, black bear common. An exterminating war was being waged against wolves. Beaver were on every stream. Flocks of turkeys thronged the woods. In the fall and spring, ducks and geese darkened the rivers.

Lewis was born in a place where the West invited exploration but the East could provide education and knowledge, where the hunting was magnificent but plantation society provided refinement and enlightenment, where he could learn wilderness skills while sharpening his wits about such matters as surveying, politics, natural history, and geography.

The West was very much on Virginians' minds in 1774, even though the big news that year was the Boston Tea Party, the introduction of resolutions in the House of Burgesses in support of Massachusetts, the dissolution of the Burgesses by the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, and a subsequent meeting at Raleigh Tavern of the dissolved Burgesses, whose Committee of Correspondence sent out letters calling for a general congress of the American colonies. In September, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, and revolution was under way.

Lord Dunmorewas a villain in the eyes of the revolutionaries. He was eventually forced to flee Virginia and take up residence on a British warship. But in January 1774, he had done Virginia a big favor by organizing an offensive into the Ohio country by Virginia militia. The Virginians goaded Shawnee, Ottawa, and other tribes into what became Lord Dunmore's War, which ended with the Indians defeated. They ceded hunting rights in Kentucky to the Virginians and agreed to unhindered access to and navigation on the Ohio River. Within six months, the Transylvania Company sent out Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap to the bluegrass country of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the British government, in the Quebec Act of 1774, moved to stem the flow of Virginians across the mountains, by extending the boundary of Canada south to the Ohio River. This cut off Virginia's western claims, threatened to spoil the hopes and schemes of innumerable land speculators, including George Washington, and established a highly centralized crown-controlled government with special privileges for the Catholic Church, provoking fear that French Canadians, rather than Protestant Virginians, would rule in the Ohio Valley. This was one of the so-called Intolerable Acts that spurred the revolution.

Meriwether Lewis was born on the eve of revolution into a world of conflict between Americans and the British government for control of the trans-Appalachian West in a colony whose western ambitions were limitless, a colony that was leading the surge of Americans over the mountains, and in a county that was a nursery of explorers.

His family had been a part of the western movement from the beginning. Thomas Jefferson described Lewis's forebears as "one of the distinguished families" of Virginia, and among the earliest. The first Lewis to come to America had been Robert, a Welshman and an officer in the British army. The family coat of arms was "Omne Solum Forti Patria Est," or "All Earth Is to a Brave Man His Country." (An alternate translation is "Everything the Brave Man Does Is for His Country.") Robert arrived in 1635 with a grant from the king for 33,333 1/3 acres of Virginia land. He had numerous progeny, including Colonel Robert Lewis, who was wonderfully successful on the Virginia frontier of the eighteenth century, in Albemarle County. On his death, Colonel Lewis was wealthy enough to leave all nine of his children with substantial plantations. His fifth son, William, inherited 1,896 acres, and slaves, and a house, Locust Hill, a rather rustic log home, but very comfortable and filled with things of value, including much table silver. It was just seven miles west of Charlottesville, within sight of Monticello.

One of the Lewis men, an uncle of Meriwether Lewis's father, was a member of the king's council; another, Fielding Lewis, married a sister of George Washington. Still another relative, Thomas Lewis, accompanied Jefferson's father, Peter, on an expedition in 1746 into the Northern Neck, between the Potomac and the Rappahannock. Thomas was the first Lewis to keep a journal of exploration. He had a gift for vivid descriptions, of horses "tumbling over Rocks and precipices," of cold, rain, and near-starvation. He wrote of exultation over killing "one old Bair & three Cubs." He described a mountain area where they were so "often in the outmoust Danger this tirable place was Calld Purgatory." One river was so treacherous they named it Styx, "from the Dismal appearance of the place Being Sufficen to Strick terror in any human Creature."

In 1769, William Lewis, then thirty-one years old, married his cousin, twenty-two-year-old Lucy Meriwether. The Meriwether family was also Welsh and also land-rich -- by 1730, the family held a tract near Charlottesville of 17,952 acres. The coat of arms was "Vi et Consilio," or "Force and Counsel." George R. Gilmer, later a governor of Georgia, wrote of the family, "None ever looked at or talked with a Meriwether but he heard something which made him look or listen again." Jefferson said of Colonel Nicholas Meriwether, Lucy's father, "He was the most sensible man I ever knew." He had served as commander of a Virginia regiment in Braddock's disastrous campaign of 1755.

The Lewis and Meriwether families had long been close-knit and interrelated. Indeed, there were eleven marriages joining Lewises and Meriwethers between 1725 and 1774. Nicholas Meriwether II, 1667-1744, was the great-grandfather of Lucy Meriwether and the grandfather of William Lewis. The marriage of Lucy and William combined two bloodlines of unusual strength -- and some weaknesses. According to Jefferson, the family was "subject to hypocondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family."

Despite William Lewis's tendency toward hypochondria -- or what Jefferson at other times called melancholy and would later be called depression -- Jefferson described his neighbor and friend as a man of "good sense, integrity, bravery, enterprize & remarkable bodily powers."

A year after their marriage, William and Lucy Lewis had their first child, a daughter they named Jane. Meriwether Lewis was born in 1774. Three years later, a second son, Reuben, was born.

In 1775, war broke out. Jefferson noted that, when it came, William Lewis was "happily situated at home with a wife and young family, & a fortune placed him at ease." Nevertheless, "he left all to aid in the liberation of his country from foreign usurpations." Like General Washington, he served without pay; going Washington one better, he bore his own expenses, as his patriotic contribution to his country.

Meriwether Lewis scarcely knew his father, for Lieutenant Lewis was away making war for most of the first five years of his son's life. He served as commander of one of the first regiments raised in Virginia, enlisting in July 1775. By September, he was a first lieutenant in the Albemarle County militia. When the unit integrated with the Continental Line, he became a lieutenant in the regulars.

In November 1779, Lieutenant Lewis spent a short leave with his family at Cloverfields, a Meriwether family plantation where his wife, Lucy, had grown

Meet the Author

Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose was a renowned historian and acclaimed author of more than thirty books. Among his New York Times bestsellers are Nothing Like It in the World, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, D-Day - June 6, 1944, and Undaunted Courage. Dr. Ambrose was a retired Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and a contributing editor for the Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
January 10, 1936
Date of Death:
October 13, 2002
Place of Birth:
Whitewater, Wisconsin
Place of Death:
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
B.A., University of Wisconsin; M.A., Louisiana State University, 1958; Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, 1963

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Undaunted Courage 4 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 82 reviews.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
Perhaps no other journey, save the landings on the moon, has fired the American imagination like the expedition of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean and back. It is the story of the opening of the American West, of an incredible tale of leadership and personal hardship, and it offers a first glimpse into an unknown native world that no longer exists. Undaunted Courage is Ambrose's attempt at placing the Lewis and Clark expedition within the context of the early years of the American republic, especially from the perspective of Captain Meriwether Lewis. Ambrose, who was a historian in New Orleans, had a great ability to focus on larger events, from the perspective of leaders, and especially leaders who had a hands-on experience with great events. His works in the later part of his career, like the famed Band of Brothers, focused on small military units, which faced unique circumstances, and exhibited great bravery through trying times. In a sense, the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first Band of Brothers: two officers and roughly thirty enlisted men, trekking over unknown territory, and out of touch with their command and the rest of civilization for over two years. This book is written partly as a biography of Captain Lewis, who was also the equivalent of today's White House Chief of Staff in the Jefferson administration. Ambrose presents Lewis as a trusted man, given to wandering, beset by personal demons and depression, driven to success, but often forgetful in critical moments of his task. Most of all, he wants the reader to understand that the expedition would have failed, as many other shorter ones did in this time period, were it not for the excellent junior officer leadership, and the real espirit de corps that the enlisted men developed; as their very survival depended on the type of teamwork they created. Ambrose loved this subject, probably as much as any other in his career. He spent a significant amount of personal time camping and traveling the route that Lewis & Clark took, for decades before this book came to print. His first hand knowledge of the difficult terrain traveled adds a sense of realism. This is more than a memoir of Lewis. It is a travel and nature description, particularly of the mountain and Pacific Northwest. The writing style reads aloud well, almost as if Ambrose would like the reader to take the book and read portions at a campfire, as he often read portions of the Lewis & Clark journal over campfires to his students. There are good maps, which make following the journey easier, but there are not many pictures. This is more than just a retelling of the Lewis & Clark journals, as it relies extensively on secondary sources, and his own personal historical judgments of the group's decision making processes. There are times when the writing could be tighter, when it would be better if Ambrose would not linger so long over a particular time period, as the group encountered an Indian tribe, or regarding the preparation for the expedition. Perhaps because Ambrose really loved this subject so much, that he does tend to gush over his subject, but that is a minor quibble. What the reader should find is a great tale of adventure, and a leadership study of two officers who complimented each other as well as any could.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stephen Ambrose writes more than a recounting of Lewis' and Clark's expedition of the Louisiana purchase. It is a full biography of Meriwether Lewis. It gives details of his youth and growing up and how Jefferson took him under his wing. It provides information on how Lewis was selected to lead this expedition and the intense training he received in preparing for this long trek. I did not know that Lewis completed what could almost be considered a Master's training in the sciences in several months to prepare him. I was unaware of all the discoveries that he made and I was also unaware that the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean. There are times when Ambrose does not have information from Lewis or very little from Clark that he does take license and extrapolate his own thoughts, which while reasonable are not necessarily factually based, but this is done very little and does not take away from the quality of the work presented. It is one that I highly enjoyed and recommend.
db-reader More than 1 year ago
I bought this book to learn more about the Lewis and Clark Trails as I live in Yankton, SD on the Missouri River. Great information on the various President's and the development of the various territories/states and how the land was purchased. I may have learned all of this in grade school but it didn't stick. Reading this book has made it stick. I found it informative, insightful, factual and just good reading. This is a book to read again a few years down the road.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good, reader friendly account of one of the most interesting times in American history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a high school junior and we're learning about the early colonial period now in American History. I thought I would read Undaunted Courage to give me a leg up and give me more detailed information about that time. It has done that and so much more. Ambrose makes it so fascinating as he recounts the thoughts and trials that Lewis and Clark must undergo. The descriptions of what they see, experience, discover, and observe is incredible. It has given me a new appreciation for what these men had to do to reach the Pacific. I strongly recommend this book. Don't let the subject matter stop you; it IS actually enjoyable and doesn't read out like a stuffy history lesson.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just truely amazing. Even if you don't like histroy you will enjoy this book. Makes you feel like an expert.
AJ_Wheat More than 1 year ago
It's so interesting that Thomas Jefferson, the champion of small government would be able to see the future so clearly in purchasing Louisiana from Napoleon and the French. But he saw it clearly and acted in a very federal government leveraging way to gain the land west of the Mississippi. It was also so interesting that this renaissance-man president would take such a personal interested and assume responsibility for not only selecting Meriwether Lewis, but also in conducting so much of his training. Can you imagine any modern president not delegating such a task? This is a book that paints the picture, not only of western scenes, Indians and amazing animals not seen before by most Americans; it paints lucid portraits of the main players in the Lewis and Clarke expedition. Stephen Ambrose tells the tale in such a way as to build suspense. And yet it's not just an action book - but one that ponders the meaning of people's lives and the events. All the while, we feel the sense of their awareness that they were making history and literally opening up the future of our nation. I prefer the unabridged version so as not to miss any details. I highly recommend this book. History does not always come packaged in such high adventure!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most intricate books I have ever read about a historical accomplishment. I am writing this review, as I am only half way through the book, because it is so riveting. This book brilliantly sets up the trek across the country, by giving us a deep, but brief accountance of Lewis's life, education, and relations to the figures who most effected his persona. Then continues on, while choosing important and fascinating facts from Lewis's journals, to re-create the journey across our great nation, with amazing granduer. The story slips in and out of the journal's passages with mesmerating prose, grabbing your attention and placing you deep into the novel. Eventually, with enough time to capture just a couple chapters, you find yourself on an amazing journey. Sometimes, I feel as though I am in a perouge with the men, or walking the plains with Mr. Lewis. If you are a journeyman yourself, or have ever dreamed of discovering something no one else has ever laid eyes on, this novel will deliver that adventure for you. It almost fulfills my dream of being able to live in a time, when the excitement of discovering something so natural and real is still possible. I, as an avid historian and adventurer, must be thankful for the opportunity to be taken on such a memorable and unfathomable journey across the greatest expanse of landscape our environment has ever known. It is filled with discovery, after discovery. What man on Earth....can deny the evangelical feeling of discovering something new? This book is a bargain, no matter the price.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ambrose, I believe to be one of the greatest literary historians of his decade. He chronicles the Lewis and Clark expedition from conception to treking their way to the Rocky Mountains. Based primarily on the Lewis and Clark journals that were scattered and often incomplete with gaps in days, and some of the journals were lost. Ambrose fills in the missing peices of the historical surveying trip. Two thumbs up to Ambrose on his views concerning Thomas Jefferson and his administration. To me this could be standard reading material for all students of history and govenment. Also, Ambrose is experienced enough in his own writing ability that it is a pleasure for the reader to endure. I found myself not being able to put it down. Thanks again Stephen.
KristinAZ 17 days ago
Loved it
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magsco More than 1 year ago
The story of Meriwether Lewis is fascinating. I especially enjoyed the focus on the relationship between Lewis and President Thomas Jefferson. But Ambrose's perspective is distorted by his conservative political views. I was very disappointed with how inadequately Ambrose researched and wrote about the emotional decline of Lewis that led to his suicide. For example, Ambrose wrote, " In modern popular psychology, he might be said to have been suffering from postpartum depression." Yes, he really wrote that!
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I was recommended this book by a friend and found it very enlightening and very descriptive. Awesome read for anyone wanting to know a little more than what is taught in class. Makes you wish you could go back and be selected for the adventure yourself.
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SDeasy More than 1 year ago
I haven't finished this yet but am really enjoying it. It is obviously been well researched. My only problem is like all Nook books, the maps are unreadable. If you want this for reference, you should buy the print edition.