AHA Member Spotlight: William M. Ferraro

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

FerraroWilliam M. Ferraro is a historian and documentary editor. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and has been an AHA member since 1986.

Current school or alma mater/s: AB in American studies from Georgetown University and an AM and PhD in American civilization from Brown University.

Fields of interest: I concentrate on 18th-century and 19th-century United States history with particular interests in the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras. I have worked on several notable figures and their family relationships, including John and William Tecumseh Sherman, Salmon P. Chase, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, and James Monroe.

When did you first develop an interest in history?

Growing up long before the Internet, I satisfied my curiosity while in later elementary school by reading encyclopedias, taking a particular interest in biographies. My initial interest in narrative histories (while in junior high and high school) focused on World War II. I especially liked books on the naval war in the Pacific. One of my father’s cousins served on the aircraft carrier Hornet as an airplane mechanic during the Doolittle Raid and Midway. He jumped off the flight deck when the ship sunk during the Guadalcanal campaign and was recovered from the water by a destroyer.

What projects are you working on currently?

Editing the Revolutionary War Series for the Papers of George Washington occupies the bulk of my time. I recently published two book chapters centered on James Monroe and have one pending on Ulysses S. Grant’s world tour. Within the last month, I completed a conference paper reevaluating the relationship between Benjamin Rush and George Washington. If I had more time for personal research and writing, I would love to give attention to longer projects on the Sherman family and Ulysses S. Grant.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?

In graduate school, I concentrated on community studies, writing a dissertation on town meeting government in Rhode Island from the 1630s until the 1980s. From writing on communities and using largely voiceless sources, I shifted to individuals, families, and loudly voiced sources like letters, diaries, and published writings.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

The single most valuable publication over my career as a historian has been AHA’s Perspectives magazine. Nothing so compact contains so much useful information. If nothing else, the memoriam essays offer vivid insights into the profession.

What do you value most about the history profession? 

The history profession allows daily engagement with people in the past facing and often overcoming challenges. It is exciting and informative. Countless people have told me how much they wish they could have a job like mine. Countless more have told the same thing to my parents when finding out that their son is a historian.

Why did you join the AHA?

I joined the AHA to find out more about the history profession when it became clear that my American civilization PhD was doing nowhere in literary studies or political science.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

My wife and I were married on November 29, 1997. Remarkably, the AHA in January 1998 was in Seattle, and the conference hotel options included a Four Seasons. That hotel was $15 or $20 more per night than the other hotels. I spent the extra money for the fancier hotel, and we had a fabulous time while I remember friends grumbling about the overcrowding and accommodations at the other hotels. I do not recall the AHA annual meeting ever before or since offering a Four Seasons franchise as a lodging option.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

I grew up in New Jersey and began rooting for the New York Yankees in 1966. My fixation with the Yankees has persisted through graduate school in New England and professional positions in California, Illinois, and Virginia. The Yankees have been so successful since 1995 that people do not realize or forget how terrible they were in the later 1960s, early 1970s, and early 1990s. In answering this question, I cannot overlook my family, especially my wife and our adopted son.

Any final thoughts?

Read and use the great modern printed and online documentary editions such as the Papers of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant Papers, Stanton-Anthony Papers, Booker T. Washington Papers, and Woodrow Wilson Papers. A much longer list can be found at the Association for Documentary Editing website. Virtually all historians can find items of value in these modern documentary editions for teaching, research, and presentations. They will save you time, money, and errors all too prevalent in earlier editions.

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