Another Look at Civil War Military History

Gettysburg

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.

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Civil War Monitor’s Best Books of 2015

Grand Review

This year I was once again asked to select some of my favorite Civil War titles from 2015 for The Civil War Monitor magazine. It’s always difficult to narrow it down, but I gave it a shot. You will also find lists from Elizabeth Varon, Brian Matthew Jordan, Ethan Rafuse and Andrew Wagenhoffer, whose selections could just as easily have landed on my list. As you can see it was a good year for Harvard University Press.

After AppomattoxTop Pick: Gregory P. Downs’ After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press) challenges the notion that Confederates were prepared to acquiesce after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Indeed, he argues that a state of belligerency continued to define life in the South until 1871. Downs shows how federal military occupation remained a potent force during much of this period as the government attempted to protect the freedom and civil rights of the African-American population. Clearly influenced by America’s occupation experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Downs argues convincingly that force was a crucial component of democracy’s  short-lived life in the postwar South. This book is a must read. [click to continue…]

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Ta-Nehisi Coates and Civil War Memory

Fate_of_the_Rebel_Flag

Congratulations to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the recipient of this year’s National Book Award in non-fiction for Between the World and Me, which has been on the New York Times’s bestseller list for 17 weeks. I read it the first week of its release and thoroughly enjoyed it. Below is Coates’s very emotional and humble acceptance speech.

At some point I want to write an essay about Coates’s understanding of the Civil War and historical memory. [click to continue…]

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New to the Civil War Memory Library, 11/19

Civil War WestsThree of the books below reflect my recent interest in the West during the Civil War era, which I know next to nothing about other than having read Ari Kelman’s brilliant book about the Sand Creek Massacre. I am currently working on a little project that involves an almost complete run of the Second Colorado Cavalry’s camp newspaper published in 1864 and 1865. What I find interesting is the way in which the Civil War and growing concerns on the frontier with Native Americans begin to overlap by the end of the war. I will share more about this project in the coming weeks as it begins to come together. Thanks to my fellow Book Squad members, Megan Kate Nelson and Heather Cox Richardson, for the suggestions.

Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (University of California Press, 2015).

Leornard L. Richards, Who Freed the Slaves?: The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (Anchor, 2007).

Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers, eds., Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (University Press of Kansas, 1998).

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A Confederate Heritage Gaffe

Stone Mountain

Earlier today I was interviewed by a local NPR station in Atlanta on the situation at Stone Mountain. The story and interview should be available tomorrow morning. While plans for a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. appear to be on hold, an exhibit on black Union soldiers is moving forward. Our conversation focused on this exhibit and the significance of its location on the grounds of Stone Mountain.

Over the weekend a relatively small rally took place at Stone Mountain to protest the King monument. Those in attendance offer another example of why the very people who claim to defend the memory of Confederate soldiers and the flag have done more than anyone else to provide the impetus for communities to remove reminders of the Confederacy from public places. [click to continue…]

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Do We Need Another Biography of Custer?

custers-last-stand-H

My latest essay at The Daily Beast is a review of T.J. Stiles’s new book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed his other two biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In all three biographies Stiles explores the challenges each individual faced adjusting to some of the most dramatic changes that took place in this country during the mid-nineteenth century. I am not sure that this framework helps to explain Custer as opposed to his previous two subjects, but it is a solid effort. Books about Custer is a cottage industry and I have no doubt that some historians will nitpick a few oversights, but I didn’t see anything that threatens Stiles’s overall interpretation. It’s a fast read and well worth your time.

This is my third essay at The Daily Beast. I really enjoyed the exposure I gained writing for the Atlantic, but editorial changes have made it more difficult to publish. The editors have welcomed all of my suggestions thus far and two more essays are planned, one on the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as a review of PBS’s new series, “Mercy Street.” I hope at some point soon to expand my focus beyond the Civil War. One of the nice things about writing for TDB is that I don’t have to deal with comments that quickly spiral off the deep end, not to mention the fact that writing for TDB is a paying gig. 🙂

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