Another Look at Civil War Military History
In his review of Earl Hess’s most recent book, Wayne Hsieh offers a few words about the ongoing debate surrounding military history that appeared in recent issues of The Journal of the Civil War Era and Civil War History. I am weary of most attempts to distinguish between military and non-military. More often than not it tells me more about the individual making the distinction than it does about the relevant community of historians and what they are attempting to explain.
But in the end, divisions between military and non-military historians originate less from differences in institutional patterns of support, but from differing assumptions on bloodletting in war. Military historians invariably find themselves drawn to war’s violence: not necessarily to glorify it, but certainly at the very least to explain killing to the degree that it possesses some sort of rational logic (including the points at which chance comes into play and logic disappears)—whether via the discovery or creation of a coherent and plausible battle narrative, a focus on command decisions, or a more social scientific approach centered on technology or organizational culture. Like most effect works of history, Hess combines a variety of approaches in this monograph on one battle, but even as senior scholars such as George Rable and Kenneth Noe have imbued the battle study with approaches usually associated with cultural history, it is hard to imagine a graduate student acquiring a tenure-track position having written a battle study as a monograph.
I suspect that lack of interest among many non-military historians stems at least in part from unease toward the military historian’s assumption that martial violence in fact possesses a logic of sorts that goes beyond simple criminality. For many non-military academic historians, in attempting to explain violence, the military historian imposes on war a narrative or causal coherence it does not possess, while inscribing on it a moral legitimacy it does not deserve. In contrast, historians who work on subjects such as slavery at least implicitly condemn the injustices of the past by uncovering the sinister logic of the violence used in structures of power such as slavery. But on the battlefield, where all participants by definition spill the blood of their opponents, many academic historians can find no such straightforward moral logic, especially since various markers of military proficiency such as cohesion, adaptability, and a willingness to self-sacrifice can all be found in the service of both the Union and Confederate armies. Tightly focused forms of scholarship such as the battle study thus seem to be not only a poor use of a scholar’s time, but acquire the unseemly taint of militarism. For myself, military history’s greatest value is precisely in highlighting such uncomfortable moral ambiguities, but I am hardly a dispassionate observer.
I am less interested in whether the highlighted point by Hsieh tracks a distinction between the military and non-military historian than whether it speaks to a certain attitude toward the traditional battle/campaign study. Discuss.