A Response to Wittenberg

I appreciate Eric Wittenberg’s thoughtful post regarding his lack of an appetite for social history. Ultimately, I agree that our choice of focus as historians is largely a matter of a preferred flavor. That said, I want to take issue with a few of Eric’s comments to extend the discussion a bit. Firstly, I hope Eric has more to say surrounding his comment on Rable’s Fredericksburg study. Given that the book won a number of important scholarly awards from reputable institutions it is hard to take seriously the conclusion that it “fails to provide a complete view of either the military or social aspects.” I would like to hear more. It strikes me as strange that on the one hand Eric has little time for issues like slavery and race, but is interested in the “motivations” of the soldiers who fought the battles. We now know that slavery and race along with a host of other issues were widely discussed in both armies. As I’ve stated before we cannot treat these men as if they simply fell out of the sky onto these battlefields.

As to the question of the relationship between military and social history it is difficult to get a fix on the problem. I understand Mark Grimsley’s project as trying to challenge the way we think about military history. In that sense the questions that social historians ask can open up important avenues of discussion that are relevant to understanding more traditional questions surrounding the battlefield as well as advancing our understanding. As historians we are not simply interested in knowing more about the battlefield and the movement of troops; we want to understand better and that invovles challenging one another to ask better questions. I agree that many of these debates take on a less-than-exciting flair, but who ever said that knowledge had to be fun or entertaining? Many of these debates involve a kind of “concept crunching” that leave you weary within minutes. On a personal note, I have little patience with gender history. Much of it is difficult for me to follow and often it seems to be more about politics than actual history. Still, I am convinced that it is important and that I should give it some thought. To that end I’ve decided to offer an elective next year on 20th century women’s history. It will force (and I emphasize ‘force’) me to tackle some of these questions. I hope it will lead to better understanding of the more familiar territory of 19th century America. Back to the Civil War…

I can read 100 traditional studies of notable or obscure battles and they wouldn’t bring me any closer to better understanding the war compared to George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! or Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War. This is not meant as a slight in any way, but an observations of the scope of these types of studies. Rable places one battle in a much broader perspective that helps the reader better understand the connection between the battlefield and the social/political fronts. Grimsley provides a way to better understand why the war and the battlefields evolved the way they did. The questions that these two historians ask open up new vistas rather than emphasizing a narrow view. Again, both approaches are important, but I disagree that this distinction is simply a matter of preferred flavors. Thanks again Eric for a thoughtful post.

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