I’ve noticed a bit of hostility directed at a few of my posts that emphasize the importance of social history to the study of the Civil War. I find it just a bit curious as to why. Here are a few thoughts, none of which at this point I will go to the grave to defend. From one perspective there seems to be tension between strict military historians on the one hand and more academic historians who stress the tenets of the “New Military History” with its emphasis on social, economic, and political categories. The difference in language, tone and tendency to give short thrift to the detail of the battlefield tends to alienate non-academics. Both groups write for distinct audiences, though I believe that this is changing owing to a few Civil War historians who have made it a point to apply this new focus in a way which does not alienate popular readers. It should be pointed out that recent studies of Civil War soldiers and the increase in regimental histories are all products of the New Military History. Soldiers were not simply pawns to be manipulated by generals and military units were defined by various social relationships and their evolving connections with the home front and politics.
Both groups attempt to better understand military events, but at the same time they employ different assumptions in regard to what needs to be explained. Traditional military historians focus predominantly on the battlefield. Many are driven by the mantra, “The more detail the better” and there are plenty of readers who are eager to go along for the ride. When done right such a perspective can reveal the complexity and chaos of a Civil War battle. On the other hand, this approach has the potential to treat the battle as existing in a vacuum divorced from events off the battlefield. I’ve commented on this before so I will not repeat myself. There is a gamining psychology in this approach that is content to step back and take a God’s eye view of the field from a perspective where discreet units can be manipulated and consequences easily calculated. I suspect that for social historians the incredible amount of detail offered by traditional histories offers diminishing returns. It will come as no surprise to many of you that I agree. The two approaches are not necessarily at odds with one another. Historians in both camps can learn a great deal from one another; the most open-minded already do just that.