How Not To Argue About The Civil War

I was intrigued by Brett Schulte’s recent post over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading which summarizes the most recent issue of the popular Civil War magazines. I like this feature of Brett’s blog as I rarely keep up with the large number of history magazines currently on the market. I appreciate Brett’s kind words re: my Crater article, which along with Peter Carmichael’s piece summarized below, were published in the most recent issue of America’s Civil War (May 2006). Here is Brett’s assessment of Carmichael’s article.

Peter Carmichael’s article on Chancellorsville is definitely of the “new military history” variety, looking at how two Confederate soldiers in the Stonewall Brigade, Henry Kyd Douglas and Owen T. Hedges, handled their experiences on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. He relates Douglas’ fabrication of how Brigade commander Franklin E. “Bull” Paxton met his end, and then goes into the reasons why Douglas might have done so. Carmichael goes on to commend Hedges for his “honest self-assessmentI”. One of the main themes of the author’s article is that military history is “dry” without liberally sprinkling in social history. I agree that looking at how soldiers’ felt is an important and perfectly valid topic of study, and that some might find this topic interesting. As a military history buff, I don’t believe it is needed as much as some would claim in traditional campaign and battle studies. There is plenty of room for both types of book in the study of the Civil War. As a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, I liken this to Jackie Robinson and his role as the first African-American to play in the modern (post-1900) game. A history of a given season of the Brooklyn Dodgers, say 1951, would not focus on the fact that Robinson was Black. Instead, it would focus on his contributions on the playing field (i.e. the “tactics” of a baseball game). Other books concentrate on Robinson’s role in paving the way for non-White players, as they rightly should. To me it is simply a matter of what is interesting to the individual reader.

In response to a recent post on my frustration with Civil War Roundtables, Brooks Simpson shared a comment from a review of an introduction that he did for a new edition of Joshua Chamberlain’s famous memoir, The Passing of the Armies. Apparently this reader was unhappy with Simpson’s deconstruction or interpretation of the memoir as something more than an accurate account of the war years.

The Passing of the Armies offers readers the opportunity to experience the trials and triumphs of the Civil War through the personal recollections of an authentic American hero. However, it is my opinion that the introduction by Brooks D. Simpson serves to disrupt the first hand experiences of Joshua Chamberlain by calling into question Chamberlain’s accuracy of events and his personal motives. Passing of the Armies should stand as one man’s first hand account of his life, leaving his critics to write their own book.

Brett’s review of Carmichael and this anonymous review of Simpson’s introduction highlight the gap between these two approaches to the study of the Civil War and serves to re-open one of the common themes of this blog: the apparent tension between social and traditional military history. In reference to Brett’s critique I don’t think that Carmichael’s point is simply that military history is “dry” without a broader focus, but that the failure to address broader themes renders the interpretation incomplete. Carmichael and other practitioners are not simply “sprinkling in social history” because it is fashionable, but because they believe that a broader analytical approach reveals a more sophisticated understanding of the past. I want to be clear that I have absolutely no problem with one’s personal preferences. If you happen to be interested in straight-forward military history with its concentration on the battlefield so be it. What one claims to be interested in is not a proper topic of debate since it can be characterized as a descriptive claim of one’s preferences. However, the claim that the “New Military History” is simply a matter of preference cannot be dismissed so easily. There is room for debate as to the merits of the approach. It cannot simply be pushed aside as a “flavor of ice cream” or reduced to “personal preference.” Simpson’s point in his introduction to Chamberlain’s memoir reveals why a broader critical approach to sources is so important. You simply can’t treat a memoir as a “first-hand account” of the war. He penned it years after the war ended and clearly had an agenda. Carmichael’s point also rams home the point that a more thoughtful critique of sources utilizing the approaches as outlined in cultural and social histories is absolutely essential to understanding the accounts of Douglas and Owens. Whether you agree or disagree with their conclusions can lead to an interesting debate, but there arguments cannot be dispensed with by giving it the back of your hand because it doesn’t mesh with your personal preferences or tastes.

We need to move beyond the naïve dichotomy of social/cultural history v. military history. I hope my little piece on the Crater says more than just my personal preference for social history v. military history. You can do both w/o losing the attraction of the battlefield. Implicit in my ACW article is the argument that you can’t understand Confederate accounts of the battle without a broader approach. Their wartime accounts are part of an interpretation that stretches beyond the battlefield. Their accounts connect to the home front, politics, and race. Their own accounts point in this direction as opposed to the claim that historians are imposing their own agenda on the past. Of course the pitfalls of presentism abound, but they can be avoided through a careful reading of the sources. If you disagree with that premise then provide an argument against it. Please don’t tell me that you find my flavor displeasing. You can disagree, but disagreements imply debate/dialogue. I welcome it.

2 thoughts on “How Not To Argue About The Civil War

  1. Brett S.

    Kevin,

    I wasn’t surprised to see your post this morning. Any comment I make on my blog about my personal preference for books and articles focusing on strategy & tactics seems to end up over here. Your entry, as usual in these cases, seems to agree with me on one hand while essentially calling me ignorant for choosing not to study race relations and gender relations during the Civil War. This makes it utterly impossible to attempt a rebuttal with any chance of success because I have no idea what exactly you are arguing for or against. I don’t know if you for some reason believe that my blog posts are specifically aimed at you personally or at any group you claim to represent, but I can assure you that this is not the case. I create blog entries on the Civil War because it is a hobby of mine, not because I’m attempting to put together some thesis arguing that race and gender relations are unimportant. In fact, that thought could not be further from the truth.

    Nowhere in the part of my entry that you quoted do I ever say that the social aspects of the war are unimportant, nor do I “dismiss” them. In fact, I argue the opposite, and we essentially agree that there is a need for and importance in the study of race and gender relations during the war and the effect this had on the memory of the war. Where we disagree is essentially whether or not myself and others like me who enjoy tactical studies should be interested in the social aspects of the war. I’m not an academic. I simply enjoy reading about the aspects of the war I choose to read about, and I thank you for acknowledging that this is perfectly acceptable. However, what is left unsaid (and maybe I’m reading too much into your words, as you seem to have misread mine in my original blog entry) is that I am in some way arguing against the study of race and gender relations, et al, in campaign and battle studies, and that my level of sophistication and that of others like me who prefer the standard tactical studies of battles and troop movements is beneath those who DO study other aspects of the war. In essence you are speaking out of both sides of your mouth, saying that it is okay to have preferences, but that people who do not find the social aspects of the civil War interesting are in some way ignorant for having particular preferences. Notice I said “interesting”, NOT “important”. This is a key difference, and one which you seem to have a hard time recognizing. The fact that I do not consider these aspects of the war interesting DOES NOT mean that I find them unimportant. As I have said in the past, my sister is a recent undergraduate of the University of Illinois in French History, and she will be attending Penn State in the fall. Her interests also include the importance of gender studies in history. From her, I have gained an appreciation of if not necessarily an interest in the topics she studies.

    Your entire post, from the title to the comments button, smacks of thinly veiled condescension. In particular, I don’t appreciate being lumped in with the second poster, who is making an argument against something, whereas I am simply stating my preference for tactical studies in their current form. Nowhere did I say that there shouldn’t be battle and campaign studies that look at race and gender relations, the role of citizens, etc. I am simply stating, so that others who read this understand where I am coming from, that I would typically choose not to read those studies. Nothing more, nothing less. I agree that there are certain aspects of the war that I know little about. But guess what? I don’t care because those subjects are uninteresting to me. Again, this does not mean that I consider those topics unimportant. It’s not like I’m taking your Civil War class or that of a Professor at some University. Because I’m not, I am free to choose whatever books interest me and read only those, apparently to your unending annoyance. Why you seem so opposed to this idea while at the same time explicitly saying in your entry that you are not opposed is confusing and deceptive on multiple levels.

    Other than this comment, which will be appearing on my blog as well, I hope this is the last time we need to have a discussion about this. We essentially agree, but you continually infer in these snide blog entries that I am in some way disagreeing with you. I can only continue to scratch my head in mild amusement when you essentially try to argue about a topic in which there was never any disagreement in the first place.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Brett, — Please don’t think that I used this opportunity to erase all the comments. As you may know the transfer from Blogger did not allow the inclusion of comments. I understand, however, if you wanted your comment not to be left out. Thanks again for the help in getting my new URL out there.

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