Are We Really Still Debating this Question?

I have absolutely no idea why I didn’t go to the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, which is taking place this weekend in St. Louis. The past two years I didn’t go for financial reasons, but other than not wanting to miss time in class I have no excuse.

I am left looking at Facebook pics and following #sha2013 tweets. This tweet from Diane Sommerville caught my attention.

It’s from a roundtable discussion that included Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, James Hogue, and Carol Reardon. The title struck me as somewhat strange: “Should Military History Be Central to the Study of the Civil War.” Given the scholarship of the panelists I have no doubt that it was well worth attending. In fact, I am hearing through the grapevine that it was indeed a lively discussion.

I guess I just find it strange that we are still debating this question.

13 thoughts on “Are We Really Still Debating this Question?

  1. M.D. Blough

    I think the problem I’ve long had is that, to far too many Civil War scholars and/or enthusiasts, “central to the study of the Civil War” is code for either being the exclusive topic of study of the Civil War or overwhelmingly the center of the study with the political/social barely rating a mention, especially the topic of slavery. I still have scars from the astonishingly ugly fight over the current General Management Plan at GNMP in which any deviation from the strict who shot who and at what part of the battlefield evoked rage from many. I think Gallagher is going a little overboard on the company thing although the events of the Civil War are confused if you don’t understand the campaigns.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think Gallagher is going a little overboard on the company thing although the events of the Civil War are confused if you don’t understand the campaigns.

      To be fair, I don’t know in what context the point was raised. I am just working on a tweet. Academic historians cover a range of issues related to the Civil War era. Many focus on non-military topics and just as many either write military history or work at the intersection of military, political, social, cultural history. I just don’t see why this is worth debating if this is, in fact, what was discussed.

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  2. Eric Schlehlein

    It is this very subject that I find myself discussing the most with novices. Company, regiment, and brigade size are all important in understanding the logistics of a Civil War battle. Additionally, one must understand the numbers if they want to understand the scope of the carnage of mid-eighteenth century warfare. Those who know little to nothing about the Civil War always have an epiphany of sorts when they compare the casualty rates of Civil War battles to those of today.

    But understanding what a “Company” is does not stop at knowing that a newly formed company contained roughly 100 men, or, consisted of one tenth of a regiment. A Civil War era company was a cultural representation of the community in which it was formed. Sometimes the men of one company would seem more foreign to another company in the same regiment than the enemy. Dissecting the 6th Wisconsin Regiment, we discover that Company D was mostly Irish, Company C a mixture of Irish, Welsh, and English ancestry, and that Company F was exclusively German, with many of the men unable to speak any English at all.

    This kind of co-mingling was common on both sides. If one wants to understand the war completely, that is, gain a cultural understanding of those who fought it, then a general understanding of how regiments and companies were formed is an absolute necessity.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Great. Thanks for passing along the link, Mark.

      I don’t know, that exchange between Hogue and Feller sounds petty to me.

      Reply
  3. Ben Allen

    Although I am a student of military history, I don’t think it should be central to the study of any conflict, just a component. That being said, those who focus on one of these aspects should at least be thoroughly acquainted with the others (i.e. all historians should know what a company and a campaign are). It with this in mind that I have my own personal definition for military history: anything that pertains to a war before it, during it, and after it—economic, military, political, social, prose, and poetry.

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  4. Wallace Hettle

    Of course. It’s a war, after all. But military history should not be defined too narrowly–it’s inextricably bound up with political, social, and cultural history.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Of course, but who needs to be reminded at this point? Isn’t this discussion played out? Somebody please tell me why this discussion is necessary at the Southern.

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  5. Christopher Coleman

    I’m a little confused as to why a whole conference would be devoted to the issue of whether the Civil War was central to the Civil War. However, beyond that, a Civil War, any Civil War is far more than just a military conflict; by its very nature it is primarily political in nature. Failure to understand that basic premise makes much of what motivated the leaders on either side an unintelligible.

    Even the regulation color of the Confederate uniform was essentially a political statement: the regular (Federal) Army uniform in 1860 was blue, but the color of the state militias (north and south) was grey. The choice of grey for the Confederacy was neither accidental or arbitrary.

    Similarly, while many military historians (many of whom come from the professional military)decry the “political” generals during the war, they were in fact an essential aspect of the conflict. Their political value, especially to Lincoln, far outweighed their military drawbacks, and in fact there were a number of such political appointees who proved to be better field commanders than some West Pointers.

    Beyond the war itself, the era was a pivotal period in American history and I’m sure there are any number of specialized studies that delve into the non-military aspects of the era without ever discussing strategy, tactics or unit sizes; but the Civil War Era is not quite the same as The Civil War, although given the overlap, the confusion is understandable.

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  6. Patrick Young

    I don’t go to any history academic conferences, but at the Immigration Law Scholars and Teachers Conference (for law school profs) panels are typically either on cutting edge developments in research, or practical advice on how to involve students. The coolest part of the conference is that on Friday night, everyone gets together at a bar to sing songs from the Civil Rights movement because most of us got our start as activists not academics.

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  7. Brad

    It’s a stupid comment. It’s as if he’s saying I can’t take you seriously or you’re not a real civil war buff if you don’t know what a company is. At the professional conferences I attend it’s about inclusiveness.

    Reply

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