Yesterday I received an advanced copy of Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s, West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace (University of North Carolina Press). It’s one of those books that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time and what little I read last night I can say confidently that it will not disappoint. Not too long ago I commented on an essay he published concerning R.E. Lee’s decision to resign from the United States Army. Prof. Hsieh studied history here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia and now teaches at the Naval Academy. I’ve met him a few times at conferences and events at UVA, but I don’t think he would know me if we passed on the street. His book is the latest release in a long line of students who have studied Civil War related topics under the direction of Gary Gallagher and Ed Ayers. In fact, it’s a virtual who’s who list, which includes William Blair, Peter Carmichael, Carrie Janney, Aaron Sheehan Dean, Anne Sarah Rubin, Amy Murrell Taylor, and William G. Thomas. All of them have published books and/or articles in Gallagher’s Civil War America Series and Military Campaigns of the Civil War Series at the University of North Carolina Press. You may be tempted to argue for a case of academic nepotism if it wasn’t for the fact that collectively this scholarship represents some of the very best recent work in the field.
While Prof. Hsieh joins a talented group of historians with the release of this book, it is what he did recently away from academia that is worth mentioning. After securing a job at the Naval Academy Prof. Hsieh chose to spend one year with the State Department on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. I don’t know the details of his responsibilities, but I do know that he was assigned to various military units for various projects that placed him in harms way. I first learned about this at a conference in the summer of 2008 for Civil War historians. There was a dull buzz about his choice to take a leave of absence and just a bit of confusion as to how someone could make such a choice after securing a position in a poor market. Contrary to what some may say, the confusion was not coming from academics who are anti-military or radical leftists; rather, it seemed to be a decision that few had any context or experience with which to understand it. I don’t mind admitting that I had some difficulty with the news and I have nothing but the highest respect for the men and women who have volunteered for the military, especially over the past eight years. I remember talking to one historian in particular and she commented that it was funny that here we have an entire room full of historians interested in the military and so few seem to understand why one of their own might choose to volunteer to serve in a military capacity or alongside the military. Of course, his friends had little difficulty understanding Prof. Hsieh’s decision.
Anyway, it is good to know that Prof Hsieh is back home and safe. I encourage you to check out his new book. It looks like a winner.