What Do We Need To Know About Traditional Military History?
From Earl Hess’s essay on the state of Civil War History in the latest issue of Civil War History.
In addition, despite the appearance of some top-quality memory studies by Carol Reardon, Brian Craig Miller, and Kevin Levin, a number of examples of this genre exhibit poor scholarship. Unfortunately, it is easy for a graduate student to research postwar newspapers and throw together a pale imitation of David Blight’s book. The most serious weakness is that the author, when writing the obligatory chapter or two about the war as background to their main effort, cannot get the larger story right. When encountering such manuscripts while reviewing them for university presses, I often compile a list of factual errors about the conflict, in addition to many conceptual errors about their subject. Ironically, many of these memory studies are focused on individuals whose sole claim to fame is that they commanded large armies in the field. Yet, the authors of these studies know next to nothing about what the general in question actually did during the war, and they know even less about how traditional military historians have interpreted his career. (pp. 391-92)
Hess believes that historians of what he calls “War Studies” and the “New Military History” have lost sight of the necessity of mastering those topics that fall into the category of Traditional Military History. These historians, according to Hess, may write about battles, leaders, and armies, but they have little understanding of military affairs. Unfortunately, Hess offers very little in the way of what needs to be mastered in this category of Civil War studies: “It includes campaign and battle studies, tactical and strategic histories, studies of weapons, and biographies of major commanders.” This seems to me to be insufficient.
I certainly appreciate the positive nod from Hess, but I have to admit that I don’t know what distinguishes my “obligatory” first chapter on the battle of the Crater from those studies that he views as problematic. It offers only a brief overview of the battle itself and includes little coverage of the major commanders and units involved. My hope is that what I did include is sufficient with which to build on in chapters devoted to the postwar years.
What I want to know is what do historians who work in the field of the New Military History and War Studies need to know about Traditional Military History? What exactly is included in this category?