Traditional or New Military History: A False Dichotomy

Continuing the themes expounded on in yesterday’s posts I wanted to take just a minute to make a few observations.  First, I think it is safe to say that the choice between traditional or the New Military History is a false dichotomy.  We can and do have first-rate studies that utilize both approaches.  There is no reason to think that the questions that tend to dominate recent social and cultural histories will drown out the traditional tactical battle study.  In fact, as I see it, they can only enhance this approach.  Historians ask questions about the past and the range of questions asked can show us much that we did not already know and that is relevant for understanding the battlefield.  In making this point, let me quote at length from Ken Noe’s excellent battle study, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle.  In his post from the other day Eric cited this book as an example of a traditional battle study published by an academic press.  I disagree with his assessment; the book utilizes a great deal of these more recent trends in the field and is much better for doing so:

In the 1980’s, a new generation of historians attempted to bridge the two historiographical paths, creating something called the "new Civil War History."  One obvious result has been an explosion of home front and community studies, the most obvious intersection of the war and American society.  Women and African Americans are gaining their rightful places in the story of the war.  In regard to the soldiers, historians have borrowed the techniques of social history to examine their motivations and activities in innovative ways.  Regiments or armies, in the end, were societies with their own set of rules and expectations, as well as extensions of larger communities back home.  Social historians and military historians finally realized that they each had something to offer, and both have been enriched.

Battle history has proven the genre most resistant to new trends, but now even it begins to bear the marks of the new Civil War history, as a fine recent study of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek attests [Wilson’s Creek by Piston and Hatcher].  What follows here is, in most cases, a rather traditional and, I hope, accessible battle narrative.  However, it also exhibits my interest in the new Civil War history.  Readers of this book, for example, will note my concern for those civilians caught in the wake of the armies, and not only those who stood in harm’s way, but also friends and relatives back home whose lives also changed course that October day.  Toward the end, the last chapter carries the narrative far beyond 1862, and back to the soldiers’ hometowns and families.  I place the battle within the wider political and social context of Civil War Kentucky, and I consider the way Americans, especially Kentuckians, remembered and commemorated Perryville in the years following the battle.

Noe’s book is clearly one of the best examples of this new approach and shows that the two approaches are not necessarily in conflict.  Anyone who has paid a minimal amount of attention to the evolution of the war in Iraq can see the problems with the narrow approach of the traditional battle narrative.  You can’t even begin to understand the nature of the resistance or the choices of strategy and tactics on the part of the U.S. Army without examining in great deal events off the battlefield.  There are the heated debates going on here in the United States and among the people of Iraq, not to mention the timing of elections and various polls.  Understanding the history of the region and in specific localities is crucial to the decisions as to how to interact with civilians and distinguish between friend and foe. 

As I stated above, the answers that historians provide are only as good as the questions asked.  In this respect the study of history has something in common with science.  Yes, the methodologies diverge, but the role of the imagination and the willingness to take chances are crucial to our ongoing quest to better understand our world.

4 comments… add one
  • Ken Noe Jul 5, 2006 @ 21:21

    Like Brett, I think I fouled up the code word–I tried to post this earlier this morning. By the way Brett,
    you’re certainly right when you write that there’s room for all sorts of approaches to a battle, which is why I like both O’Reilly and Rable. But back to my “lost” comment….

    Eric and Kevin:

    I confess that I’ve found this discussion thoroughly enjoyable, especially when it’s been “all about me” (to quote a favorite country song). Certainly it’s earned me “props” with the wife!

    Kevin’s right to point out that while I’m not a trained military historian, I attempted to bring elements of the “new military history” into a traditional narrative that would appeal to academics and non-academics. I’ve been praised and criticized both for not doing more of that. Frankly, I found the traditional framework darned seductive. But overall, both your comments, as well as those of other reviewers, suggest to me that maybe what we really need at this juncture is a common definition of “new military history.” I don’t think we’ll be all that far apart if we can just get on the same page.

    On a wider note, I just continue to be fascinated in general, in a post-modernist sense, by how readers’ perceptions of books so often are different than what was intended by the author. At various places on the net I find that I’m a traditionalist, a trend setter, the author of the definitive Perryville book, not the author of the definitive Perryville book, a member of the anti-Thomas clique, and really not so hard on Pap after all. Now if someone can tell me if I’m a Centennialist or not….

    Thanks to you both for the very kind words and your work in general.


    (Cross-posted on Eric’s site)

  • Brett S. Jul 5, 2006 @ 19:52


    I tried to post this earlier, but I don’t think I filled out the “Captcha” line correctly below the comment. If this appears twice for some reason, feel free to delete one.
    Drew, Kevin, and Eric,

    I’m crossposting this comment across all three of your blogs since you’ve all brought the discussion of New Military History up. I tend to agree with Timothy B. Smith, the author of both Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg and an historiographical look at Shiloh Battlefield. He also happens to be a Shiloh Park Ranger. In a Civil War Talk Radio interview with Gerry P., Dr. Smith says something to the effect that there is a place for many different types of Civil War history. He points to his mainly tactical study of Champion Hill as one of those times where it makes sense to present the battle in mainly military terms, considering that it has never before been covered in much detail. But he also points to his historiographical book on Shiloh Battlefield as an example where military events are naturally going to be found only in the background. The talk is located at

    if anyone wants to go take a look.

    I’ve made my POV on this subject known in the past, but for the benefit of any new readers, let me restate it. As I mentioned above, I think Dr. Smith takes a “common sense”, middle of the road sort of view, and that’s my take as well for the most part. As a wargamer and someone who is more interested in the purely military aspects of the war, I prefer books similar to Champion Hill. However, this does not mean that I do not think books such as Dr. Smith’s look at the historiography of the Shiloh Battlefield are unimportant. It’s just that I find them less interesting than the actual battles themselves.

    It really is personal preference as far as purchasing and reading books of various aspects of the war goes. Again, this does not mean that I do not think the social history aspects of the war should be taught in schools, or that people are wasting their time by doing so. In addition, I do not object to a blending of social and military history in one book either, as many different people from Kevin to Ken Noe to Dr. Smith have all suggested. But the great thing is that there can be many different books on one battle, all focusing on different things.

    One thing that I don’t believe has been brought up is the feasibility of creating one book that truly covers all aspects of a story adequately. Rable’s Fredericksburg book is one such example. Apparently it covers the social history aspects of the battle in great detail while skimming over the military portion (I am going by what others have said as I don’t own it). It is already an extremely large book as it is. If Rable had tried to cover the military aspects in greater detail, would a single volume have even been possible? What publisher would find it profitable in today’s environment to publish such a monster? If an author truly wanted to do a definitive New Military History book on a large battle, I do not see how it would even fit in one volume. Just something to think about.

    The nice thing is that there are so many new books being published that I believe anyone can find exactly what it is they are looking for among the vast amount of Civil War literature out there. As Kevin mentions, it doesn’t have to be a “social history vs. military history” dichotomy, but as Eric points out, there are differing viewpoints as to what sort of balance there should be. It’s an interesting question, and I don’t think there is necessarily a “right” answer.

    Brett S.

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