Professor Nelson writes about 19th-century US history including the history of slavery, international finance, the history of science, and global commodities.
His most recent book is Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World about the US and the Russian Empires' competition to feed Europe between 1789 and 1919.
His other books include Steel Drivin’ Man (2007), about the life of Black folklore legend John Henry, which won four national awards including the National Award for Arts Writing and the Merle Curti Prize for best book in US social history. A young-adult book he co-wrote with Marc Aronson, Ain’t Nothing But a Man (2007), describes how historians do research. With Carol Sheriff he wrote A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War (2008). His book on the history of financial crashes, A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (2012), was named a best business book of the year by Business Week.
He has been a research fellow at Harvard University, the École des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and Chicago's Newberry Library. In 2019-20 he was named a Guggenheim fellow.
He has a forthcoming chapter for UNC Press's new Ferris & Ferris imprint titled "The Bourbon South" in 2023.
In his spare time he reads science fiction and drinks too much espresso.
Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World (Basic, 2022)
A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (Knopf, 2012)
Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 1999)
With Carol Sheriff, A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007)
With Marc Aronson, Ain't Nothing But A Man (National Geographic Children's Books, 2007)
With Carol Sheriff, The American Civil War at Home (Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, 2013)
“Who Put their Capitalism in My Slavery?” Journal of the Civil War Era 5.2 (June 2015): 289-310.
“The Ordeal of Eugene Debs: The Panic of 1893, the Pullman Strike and the Origins of the Progressive Movement,” in Leon Fink, et. al., eds., Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises (University of Illinois Press, 2014), 99-110.
PhD, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, U.S. History 1995
Guggenheim Fellow 2019-20
Visiting Scholar, École des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales, France, 2018
Charles Warren Fellow, Harvard University, 2010-11
Lloyd Lewis Fellow in American History, Newberry Library, 2009-10
Commonwealth of Virginia Distinguished Scholar, 2007-2016
Merle Curti Prize: best book in US Social and Cultural History, Organization of American Historians, 2007
Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction, 2007
Anisfield-Wolf Literary Prize for Nonfiction, books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and human diversity, 2007