Traditional or New Military History: A Final Thought (for now)

I want to add one more post to this most recent series in this on-going debate surrounding the direction and proper scope of Civil War battle studies.  As to the question of the proper balance between both approaches, I really have nothing to add.  There is no answer to the question; it is a false dichotomy. In the end, my interests are in not simply understanding factually more, but understanding better, and to achieve these ends you must ask a broad range of questions.

The majority of my posts on this subject have focused on what the traditional battle narrative fails to include. I thought I would take a different approach here and concentrate on what I take to be the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of the traditional narrative and why there is so much resistance to some of the new approaches that academic historians have introduced over the past few decades.  I should add that these thoughts are not directed at any one group or individual.  They are based on my own observations of Civil War culture.

My concerns with the traditional narrative actually have not as much to do with what they fail to include, but with the historical context that continues to fuel its popularity. I tend to see the traditional battle narrative as falling squarely within the context of postwar reunion and reconciliation.  As the nation bound up its wounds and worked towards sectional reconciliation by the turn of the century, histories of the war came to reflect a growing unwillingness to engage the tough moral issues such as emancipation, race, and blame.  If the participants of the war tended to see themselves on an equal moral plain with their one-time enemies and not as political beings that harbored strong political beliefs and a deep hatred, then it is not surprising that our early histories focused on a sanitized view of the battlefield. If our collective goal is to see ourselves as unified and the war as part of the inevitable march of freedom, then it is not surprising that our historians ignored the darker aspects and unresolved issues that related to the war. (In fact, many historians at the turn of the
century contributed to the disfranchisement of African Americans by ignoring their role in the story and exacerbating the racial components of the Lost
Cause.)  I can see this clearly in my work on the battle of the Crater. Battles were slugfests that could be captured in all their glory and majesty without having to worry about the many political and social issues that animated the men in the ranks. Americans chose to celebrate the war and we continue to do so today. We really do want to be entertained by our Civil War.  I tried to make this point in much more detail in a recent paper, “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” which was presented as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book back in March.

Gary Gallagher is fond of pointing out that most people don’t just simply want to hear the same stories, they want to hear the same stories told well.  And those stories tend to satisfy our deep desire to relish in a narrative that is progressive and brings out the best in the American character.  It shields us from having to acknowledge the dark underbelly of our history.  Perhaps the human cost was not worth it in the end.  In light of the war in Iraq, perhaps we can see more clearly that the war did not really end in 1865, but simply took on a different form.  The questions that have come out of the academy have allowed me to explore the Civil War with a bit more sophistication.  More importantly, it has given me a more mature understanding of how the war both reflected progress and regression for various groups.  I do not want simply to be entertained by history. I want to be challenged and surprised.

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A New Civil War Blog

I recently discovered a very interesting blog that falls very close to my own reading and research interests.  The blog is called "not in memoriam, but in defense," which as many of you know is a reference to the 1930 Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand.  Here is a bit from Sarah’s first post:

Beginning on June 14, I will begin my
thesis research on Confederate monuments in three Southern cities: Richmond,
Stone Mountain, and the tiny town of Moulton, Alabama. From this research I hope
to understand how myths of the South have changed in recent years. Specifically,
I want to figure out how Confederate monuments have fared in cities in which
there has been a dramatic demographic shift. According to the 2000 census,
Richmond is almost 60% black. Stone Mountain, a city outside of Atlanta, is
nearly 70% black. Both of these cities are home to two of the most famous cites
of Confederate memorializing: Monument Avenue in Richmond, and the face of Stone
Mountain.

Entries catalog both her travels and research.  You will find a link to this site with the other Civil War bloggers. 

 
 

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Traditional or New Military History: A False Dichotomy

Continuing the themes expounded on in yesterday’s posts I wanted to take just a minute to make a few observations.  First, I think it is safe to say that the choice between traditional or the New Military History is a false dichotomy.  We can and do have first-rate studies that utilize both approaches.  There is no reason to think that the questions that tend to dominate recent social and cultural histories will drown out the traditional tactical battle study.  In fact, as I see it, they can only enhance this approach.  Historians ask questions about the past and the range of questions asked can show us much that we did not already know and that is relevant for understanding the battlefield.  In making this point, let me quote at length from Ken Noe’s excellent battle study, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle.  In his post from the other day Eric cited this book as an example of a traditional battle study published by an academic press.  I disagree with his assessment; the book utilizes a great deal of these more recent trends in the field and is much better for doing so:

In the 1980′s, a new generation of historians attempted to bridge the two historiographical paths, creating something called the "new Civil War History."  One obvious result has been an explosion of home front and community studies, the most obvious intersection of the war and American society.  Women and African Americans are gaining their rightful places in the story of the war.  In regard to the soldiers, historians have borrowed the techniques of social history to examine their motivations and activities in innovative ways.  Regiments or armies, in the end, were societies with their own set of rules and expectations, as well as extensions of larger communities back home.  Social historians and military historians finally realized that they each had something to offer, and both have been enriched.

Battle history has proven the genre most resistant to new trends, but now even it begins to bear the marks of the new Civil War history, as a fine recent study of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek attests [Wilson's Creek by Piston and Hatcher].  What follows here is, in most cases, a rather traditional and, I hope, accessible battle narrative.  However, it also exhibits my interest in the new Civil War history.  Readers of this book, for example, will note my concern for those civilians caught in the wake of the armies, and not only those who stood in harm’s way, but also friends and relatives back home whose lives also changed course that October day.  Toward the end, the last chapter carries the narrative far beyond 1862, and back to the soldiers’ hometowns and families.  I place the battle within the wider political and social context of Civil War Kentucky, and I consider the way Americans, especially Kentuckians, remembered and commemorated Perryville in the years following the battle.

Noe’s book is clearly one of the best examples of this new approach and shows that the two approaches are not necessarily in conflict.  Anyone who has paid a minimal amount of attention to the evolution of the war in Iraq can see the problems with the narrow approach of the traditional battle narrative.  You can’t even begin to understand the nature of the resistance or the choices of strategy and tactics on the part of the U.S. Army without examining in great deal events off the battlefield.  There are the heated debates going on here in the United States and among the people of Iraq, not to mention the timing of elections and various polls.  Understanding the history of the region and in specific localities is crucial to the decisions as to how to interact with civilians and distinguish between friend and foe. 

As I stated above, the answers that historians provide are only as good as the questions asked.  In this respect the study of history has something in common with science.  Yes, the methodologies diverge, but the role of the imagination and the willingness to take chances are crucial to our ongoing quest to better understand our world.

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Publishing and Peer Review: Part 2

Eric Wittenberg was kind enough to post a thorough response to my last post on the place of peer review in smaller publishing houses which specialize in Civil War history.  In doing so he offered his own thoughts about the academic presses and their concentration on publishing studies that fall under the heading of the "New Military History" or social history.  According to Eric:

Second, the other issue with academic peer review is that it perpetuates a
tendency toward continuing to churn out books that are of little interest to
anyone other than those with a heavy academic bent. It’s groupthink. If the
manuscript doesn’t fit the template for the “new military history” (whatever
that is), then it will be rejected. Thus, the tendency in the university presses
is to perpetuate the unhappy tendency to downplay military history in favor of
social history.

While he does concede that studies by Gordon Rhea, Ken Noe, and Frank O’Reilly fall outside this tendency of academic publishers, Eric has little interest in their concentration on social and cultural histories.  Let me add to Eric’s list: Harry Pfanz, Joe Harsh, Earl Hess, William Marvel, and Brian K. Burton.  It is interesting to note that Eric characterizes this new trend as "groupthink" and as fitting a "template."  Seems to me that the traditional military history falls more closely along these lines.  This is not necessarily a criticism as we must know what happened on the battlefield; it was after all a war.  That said, taken as a whole, however, these studies are locked in a predictable mold or pattern.  It can be argued that the offerings from the university presses over the past few decades are in fact much more interesting in terms of their methodologies and the types of events analyzed.  While Eric may be correct that the academic presses and their cultural/social studies appeal to a select audience, it seems to me that they give us a much richer view of the war that addresses specific themes and events in a way that the more traditional military narratives cannot.  And from a broader historiographical perspective they may in fact be more important to the continued advance of the field.

Step outside of the Civil War and take a look at recent studies of the American Revolution in the southern colonies.  While many of us know the details surrounding the battles of Yorktown, Cowpens, Kings Mountain, etc. historians have given us a much richer account of how the fierce civil wars between Whigs and Loyalists shaped the way both Clinton, Cornwallis and especially Nathaniel Greene managed their affairs.  We could just stay on the battlefield and follow the movements of troops and then pick up and follow the men to their next stop, but this would not really give the student of history what they needed to know.  In effect our knowledge would be incomplete. 

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Publishing and Peer Review

It looks like historian and fellow blogger Eric Wittenberg is going to take on a major cavalry project related to the Gettysburg Campaign with J.D. Petruzzi.  One of his readers asked whether he might consider a popular publisher such as Simon and Schuster.  I wasn’t surprised by Eric’s answer and my guess is that it has some merit. 

As I continue to explore the world of Civil War publishing I’ve come to appreciate more and more the role of peer review in the overall publishing process.  I’ve experienced a fairly wide spectrum of oversight from popular magazines to a well-regarded academic journal to an edited collection in a university press.  As you might expect the academic journals and university presses include an anonymous peer-review element in the process of taking a manuscript through to publication.  As I stated in an earlier post, this is incredibly important to the overall quality of the manuscript and to the status of the publication.  Recent articles of mine that have appeared in both the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and in an edited collection which is soon-to-be released by the University of Kentucky Press included extensive oversight.  Both publishers included a three-panel anonymous review board which critiqued my manuscript.  In both cases I received extensive comments that provided important critical comments to both the factual material and overall interpretation.  Both pieces ended up being revised and one was extensively revised.  In the case of the Univ. of Kentucky Press, the process started with a critique by the book’s editor, then the anonymous reviewers, and finally with the copy-editor.  At times it can be just a bit nerve-racking, but in the end both essays were better for it.

While I have a voracious appetite for Civil War history I tend to read university press books.  A big part of the reason for this is that I am confident that the peer-review process is taken seriously.  This doesn’t necessarily imply that the final product is flawless, but taken as a whole it raises the respectability level of the publisher and my confidence as a reader.  With that said it would be interesting to know what kind of peer review is included in some of the smaller or independent publishers that specialize in Civil War history.  I am thinking of Savas-Beatie, Ironclad Publishing, White Mane (I realize it’s probably the worst of them, but let’s wait until we know exactly where the differences lay.), and Butternut & Blue.  If there is a peer-review process, what does it look like?  How many and what kinds of reviewers are utilized?  What else is included to guarantee the quality of the finished product?  There are no doubt plenty of possibilities for web-publishing, but my concerns remain the same as in the case of traditional publishers.  I tend to stay away from most websites unless it’s been recommended by someone I respect or can be shown one way or another to be legitimate.  The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History’s page on recommended websites is a perfect example.  I am going to make it a point this year to spend much more time in class on helping students evaluate historical scholarship on the internet.

All things being equal the more publishers out there the better.  However, if I am going to spend my hard-earned money I expect a certain kind of product.  I want to know how the book moved from manuscript to completed publication.  Any serious history writer already knows to utilize the help of qualified friends and associates.  Whenever I finish a project I send it to friends who I know will take the time to tear it apart, point out the mistakes, and areas of weak analysis.  While researching the past can be incredibly lonely at times, the publication process should be structured in such a way that offers its readers a certain level of confidence in the final product.

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