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?

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. Continue reading “The Civil War Monitor’s Best Books of 2014”

A Few Thoughts About Lesley Gordon’s 16th Connecticut

We’ve been waiting for this book for some time. I remember talking to Lesley Gordon about regimental histories eight years ago following a panel discussion I took part in at the AHA in Philadelphia. Well, her new book, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, arrived on Tuesday and I am just about finished reading it. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy. Continue reading “A Few Thoughts About Lesley Gordon’s 16th Connecticut”

New To the Civil War Memory Library, 11/28

Broken RegimentIn the interest of full disclosure as we enter the Holiday Season, all book links on this site are to my Amazon affiliate account. I get a small cut in the form of a book credit from each purchase. Happy shopping.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf, 2014).

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic (Knopf, 2014).

Lesley Gordon, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

William B. Lees and Frederick P. Gaske, Recalling Deeds Immortal: Florida Monuments to the Civil War (University of Florida Press, 2014).

Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford University Press, 2014).

Return of ‘Military Campaigns of the Civil War’ Series

I’ve been a fan of Gary Gallagher’s edited series, Military Campaigns of the Civil War, from the beginning. The individual volumes introduced me to some of the most interesting historians in the field and went far in shaping what I know about Civil War military history and how I think about battles and campaigns. Continue reading “Return of ‘Military Campaigns of the Civil War’ Series”