My good friend, Megan Kate Nelson, has fired the first solid shot in response to essays on the state of Civil War military history published in The Journal of the Civil War Era and Civil War History. The former was authored by Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier and the latter was written by Earl Hess. I encourage you to head on over to Megan’s blog to read her post as well as the thoughtful responses. I’ve had a chance to read both essays, but other than a brief post have not offered anything more comprehensive. While I do believe that both essays offer quite a bit to consider, the authors unfortunately frame their arguments in ways that make it easy for readers to dismiss as reflective of little more than a turf war. I am not interested in wading into the value of Traditional vs. new Military History or what Hess calls War Studies. My shelves are lined with books about military leaders, battles/campaigns, politics, cultural and social studies and memory. They cover the short and long war and everything in between. It’s all interesting and important to me.
The overall claim made in both essays that traditional military history is getting the back of the hand by cultural and social historians is fundamentally mistaken given that it is futile to define what is and what is not military history. That question holds absolutely no interest to me. That said, I do believe that the field as a whole has pushed aside subjects that all of us can agree do fall into the category of Traditional Military History. Both essays include references to the evolution of conference programs for the Society of Civil War Historians’ biennial meeting.
The increasing marginality of traditional military history is nowhere more apparent than at the biennial meetings of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH). Any graduate student or untenured professor contemplating a conventional military topic would find little to encourage such a choice among the ninety-one panels and roundtables at the conference in Philadelphia (2008), Richmond (2010), Lexington (2012) and Baltimore (2014). The 2008 meeting included a roundtable on “The State of Civil War Military History”–added when the dearth of military topics became apparent–and a panel titled “The Influence of Military Operations on Politics and Policy in the Trans-Mississippi.” Beyond those two, not a single session at any of the meetings focused on what could be termed operational history, strategic or tactical thinking or execution, military leadership, or the myriad connections between those areas of investigation and nonmilitary dimensions of the conflict. Wartime debates about regional allocation of military resources, changes in the high commands, tactical choices on the battlefields such as Shiloh and Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, and other related subjects often produced swings of political momentum and otherwise affected civilian attitudes and expectations. In other words, they figured prominently in more than purely military dimensions of the war. Programs at the SCWH conferences suggest otherwise, something all the more striking because the society began in the late 1980s in large part as a response to the absence of military-related panels at the annual meetings of the Southern Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. (Gallagher and Meier, pp. 489-90)
A quote from Daniel Sutherland in the Hess article reinforces the point made by Gallagher and Meier.
As I recall it, the Society of Civil War Historians was created to reclaim Traditional Military History as a central focus of the war, but look what happened to it. Having attempted to emphasize military history in its formative years, the SCWH (judging from its journal and conferences) has also joined the mainstream. (p. 396)
I joined the SCWH as part of my registration for the 2008 conference. What I enjoyed most about it was the wide range of panels that covered not just traditional military history, but public history and even the teaching of the Civil War beyond the college level – a panel which I was asked to organize. More importantly, the 2008 conference brought together people from a number of different fields, including the museums, the National Park Service and the military. That diversity was also reflected in the audience. I met a number of participants who are best described as Civil War enthusiasts, including Harry Smeltzer, who is widely regarded as an authority on First Bull Run. For me, the enjoyment of the conference was, in large part, the result of being able to listen to all of these groups share their ideas with one another.
As a Civil War enthusiast myself, with a wide range of interests in the Civil War era, I thought it was an incredibly successful conference and I looked forward to future meetings. Unfortunately, I have to agree with the authors that the range of topics and the backgrounds of panel participants has narrowed in the ways described in the above passages and beyond since the first meeting. The program for the 2014 meeting makes this abundantly clear. Some of the panel topics have become predictable and it is fairly easy to anticipate a short list of participants. This time I was surprised to see some participants pulling double duty. I may be going out on a limb by suggesting this, but I wonder if we need to think about the ways in which social media is shaping the organization of relatively small conferences like the SCWH.
I am pleased to see that Ethan Rafuse is on the planning committee for the 2016 conference. In fact, I am very curious as to what he thinks about all of this.
In closing let me be clear that I am not offering these observations in judgment of any form of Civil War scholarship. Again, I think it is all relevant and I’ve learned an incredible amount by maintaining a broad focus in what I read. What I do believe, however, is that certain aspects of the field have been minimized in ways that are detrimental to how we think about the Civil War era.