What Do We Need To Know About Traditional Military History?

From Earl Hess’s essay on the state of Civil War History in the latest issue of Civil War History.

In addition, despite the appearance of some top-quality memory studies by Carol Reardon, Brian Craig Miller, and Kevin Levin, a number of examples of this genre exhibit poor scholarship. Unfortunately, it is easy for a graduate student to research postwar newspapers and throw together a pale imitation of David Blight’s book. The most serious weakness is that the author, when writing the obligatory chapter or two about the war as background to their main effort, cannot get the larger story right. When encountering such manuscripts while reviewing them for university presses, I often compile a list of factual errors about the conflict, in addition to many conceptual errors about their subject. Ironically, many of these memory studies are focused on individuals whose sole claim to fame is that they commanded large armies in the field. Yet, the authors of these studies know next to nothing about what the general in question actually did during the war, and they know even less about how traditional military historians have interpreted his career. (pp. 391-92)

Hess believes that historians of what he calls “War Studies” and the “New Military History” have lost sight of the necessity of mastering those topics that fall into the category of Traditional Military History. These historians, according to Hess, may write about battles, leaders, and armies, but they have little understanding of military affairs. Unfortunately, Hess offers very little in the way of what needs to be mastered in this category of Civil War studies: “It includes campaign and battle studies, tactical and strategic histories, studies of weapons, and biographies of major commanders.” This seems to me to be insufficient.

I certainly appreciate the positive nod from Hess, but I have to admit that I don’t know what distinguishes my “obligatory” first chapter on the battle of the Crater from those studies that he views as problematic. It offers only a brief overview of the battle itself and includes little coverage of the major commanders and units involved. My hope is that what I did include is sufficient with which to build on in chapters devoted to the postwar years.

What I want to know is what do historians who work in the field of the New Military History and War Studies need to know about Traditional Military History? What exactly is included in this category?


Same Flag: From Selma to Ferguson

Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (March 21, 1965)

March in Selma, Alabama (March 21, 1965)

Ferguson to Jefferson City, Missouri (December 4, 2014)

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A Reconstruction Milestone That Went Unnoticed

Tim ScottTim Scott was sworn in today as the newest Senator from the state of South Carolina. That’s not such a big deal until we add in the fact that he is the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected to the Senate from a former Confederate state. I’ve been surprised by how little this fact has been referenced since his election among my “friends” on Facebook and Twitter.

Could it be the fact that Scott is a Republican?


The Civil War Monitor’s Best Books of 2014

Civil War MonitorThis year Terry Johnston was once again kind enough to ask me to contribute to another roundup of the best books of the year for the magazine. The categories were slightly different this year, but I don’t think there are any surprises regarding my top picks. If you don’t like my picks you can peruse books chosen by A. Wilson Greene, Kathryn Shively Meier, Gerald Prokopowicz, Lesley Gordon and Andrew Wagenhoffer.

Best Book: Jennifer M. Murray, On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2012 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014)

This book serves as a reminder that the interpretation and even physical appearance of our Civil War battlefields is constantly evolving. Gettysburg enthusiasts and scholars alike will enjoy reading about an idea to cover battlefield monuments with bushes in the 1930s by park superintendent, James R. McConaghie, and plans to scrap the Virginia Monument during WWII. Unlike many books that explore the history of Civil War battlefields Murray brings her story to the present day, including discussion of the demolition of the Observation Tower and the controversy surrounding the destruction of the old Visitor Center along with the construction of the new one. Readers interested in Civil War memory, public history, tourism, and popular culture will enjoy and profit from this book. [click to continue…]


Conservatives and the Confederate Flag

In this short video a black Republican argues against the Confederate flag. His understanding of the history of the Democratic and Republican parties is problematic, but the broader argument certainly complicates our understanding of the deep divisions that exist in this ongoing controversy.

[Uploaded to YouTube on November 25, 2014]