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.

About Kevin Levin

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14 comments add yours

    • Thanks, Jonathan. It’s not much to write home about, but it is my indirect way of suggesting that I think there is something to the concerns expressed in the two essays.

  1. Kevin, you are certainly right that conference committees can do a better job recruiting panels and participants from public history and secondary education — and they should. But you (and Gallagher, Meier, and Hess) also need to acknowledge that conference committees don’t have a ton of bandwidth to add panels and roundtables that have not been proposed. And as a member of that 2014 SCWH program committee, I can tell you that we received very few public history proposals, and only one panel that would be defined as “traditional” military history (out of about 35 proposed). So yes, committees need to spread the word more widely; but these diverse groups you are talking about need to actually submit proposals.

    Also, can you clarify what you mean by your statement that “we need to think about the ways in which social media is shaping the organization of relatively small conferences like the SCWH”?

  2. I was involved with two program committees as President of the SCWH (2010 and 2012) and, despite the committee’s expressed hope that we would be able to expand the number of panels on “military” history (it probably doesn’t help this discussion that we keep putting quotation marks around the m-word), those committees received very few proposals for operational history or other topics related to the military. There was no intent not to include them; they simply were not submitted.

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the comment. Both you and Megan have been on planning committees. Let me be clear that I am not in any way suggesting that the lack of panels was/is intentional. At the same time, given the comments by Gallagher and Sutherland about the original intent of the SCWH, I have to wonder where things went wrong. If that was truly part of the purpose of the organization why didn’t this translate into more of a presence for “military” history panels?

      • No, I didn’t think you had, but the whole discussion has implied an intentionality in the evolution of the field. You’re certainly not being judgmental, but even you suggested something “went wrong” when military history shifted to cultural and social approaches.

        • Let me try approaching it this way. Given the intention behind the organization and the apparent reality, how would you frame the question that might foster some understanding? Thanks, Jim.

          • I’m not sure I can re-frame the question–articulating a question suggests there are concrete “answers”–but I can suggest some contexts.

            Of course, during the early days of the SCWH, its entire programming came down to a single panel or lecture at the Southern. And those panels did, for the most part, focus on military history. But the decision to hold a biannual conference opened the program and the Society, which went from something like 200 members to over 600, to scholars in associated fields. The conference, along with adding a major book award and associating ourselves with the Journal of the Civil War Era, created a major cultural shift and organizational shift for the organization. But I think the SHCY came to reflect the interests of its members; it didn’t shape them.

            But regardless of how the organization has developed, I think we all struggle with relevance. A parallel development to the evolution of the field (we’ve become an “era,” not a war) is the decline in the number of universities who have anyone who does the Civil War (military, social, cultural, or otherwise) and, as a result, a decline in the number of Civil War courses being taught. And with declining numbers of history majors and shrinking enrollments in upper division history classes, it is, I suppose, becoming more and more rare for a course to be offered on the Civil War itself, rather than the larger period (my own course at Marquette has always been the “Civil War Era”–Frank Klement taught it more or less that way before I succeeded him–although one of my favorite classes as an undergraduate in South Dakota had been the military history of the Civil War). But even those courses that approach the war in its larger context are no doubt taught less often than they were when many of us came into the profession. As a result, no one who self-identifies as a Civil War historian–whatever methodological approach he or she takes–feels as relevant as we might have a generation ago. The bland response to the Sesquicentennial in most parts of the country certainly hasn’t helped our self-esteem.

            Finally, I think folks who don’t think of themselves as traditional Civil War historians are attracted to it because there is so much grist for historians of any field. That is certainly my case (although I was a Civil War buff from the time I could read); I think of myself as a social historian, and have for the most part focused on the war and its aftermath from the points of view of people living far from the fighting or of people who survived the fighting and were getting on with their lives. (Not incidentally, both ideas found a home in Gary Gallagher’s Civil War America series at UNC, which, as has been pointed out in the thread over on Megan’s blog, has produced the most interesting work on the era over the last two decades or more–which is no accident, given Gary’s extraordinary support for alternative methods and approaches.)

            I’d like to think that it’s less a matter of military historians being driven away than it is of non-military historians being attracted to the era. A previous generation of historians didn’t call the period a “crucible” for nothing, and the current makeup of the field–which is entirely likely to shift again and again as historians and readers change their minds about what a “usable past” means–reflects the fact that everything important about the United States (including the ways Americans wage war) intersects with this crisis.

  3. I submitted a panel proposal for the 2014 SCWH on a military topic- specifically, the teaching of the Civil War in Professional Military Education (PME). Our proposed chair is a very highly regarded member of the community, and we had a diverse lineup of panel members, but our proposal was not accepted. In this regard, I’d have to say that Kevin’s concern (and the concerns proposed by the essay authors) have merit. From my point of view, this discussion has devolved into a turf war as some have stated, but there is a kernel of genuine concern to be addressed. The answer is probably for those doing traditional/operational/tactical history to develop their inquiries using all of the tools of other disciplines that we continue to discover, and redouble their efforts to publish and submit for panels and conferences.

    • Just last night I received an email from a military historian I know personally and who I respect that submitted to two SCWH conferences and was rejected. Of course, I can’t comment on the quality of the proposals, but at least this provides some evidence that panels are being proposed.

      • The panel in question had, if memory serves me correct, Joe Glatthaar as chair and Charles, Chris Keller, and myself as presenters. Our idea, was, as Charles says, to let people hear what the PME world is thinking in regards to the sectional conflict and have a voice in what is going on. Evidently, there wasn’t much interest; nor was there when I raised the issue of the lack of PME representation on the editorial boards of CWH and JCWE. And, as anyone who was paying attention around the time of CWI’s 2013 conference on “the future” knows, I found the relatively limited platform given to voices from PME there notable. This prompted objections from Pete, but I think Chris Keller’s and Chris Stowe’s presence on the program for CWI is in part attributable my putting the issue on his radar. As the program committee “guy” for the SMH Annual Meeting last year, I worked with Susannah Ural as she put together an SCWH panel as part of her efforts to build bridges between SMH world and SCWH world. I suppose my being on the program committee for 2016 SWCH is a fruit of that.

  4. Perhaps the sub-field of “operational history” suffers from limitations to its development as an intellectual discipline. At some point, making worthwhile arguments about complex systems requires command of analytical tools to employ data and mathematical models.

    These skills seem to be lacking from historians’ training (and/or some Civil War historians might be too insular to consult other disciplines) as evidenced by the deeply flawed statistical analysis in Nicholas Marshall’s recently published(!) Civil War death count article. Eventually you need to start writing down formulas and defining random variables, otherwise you end up with a mess that inhibits discourse — and Hacker even missed pointing out the fundamental flaws in his response!

  5. Don’t know the answer to this, so not trying to make any point, but could it be that since historians often come from academia that colleges and universities are less interested in traditional military history than in the past? In other words, you can get published if your topic is related to the social history of the war but you’re less likely to advance professionally writing about battles and leaders?

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