For a number of reasons, 2015 was an exciting year for me. In May I left the high school classroom to pursue other interests here in Boston. It began in September with an invitation to teach a research seminar at the American Antiquarian Society to twelve thoughtful and motivated college students from the college community in Worcester. I am currently pursuing a number of opportunities, but one in particular – assuming the pieces fall in place – will give me the chance to apply my skills as a teacher, researcher, and public historian. Keep your fingers crossed. Continue reading “Looking Ahead to 2016: Research, Writing, and Beyond”
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George C. Rable, Damn Yankees!: Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South (Louisiana State University Press, 2015).
Patrick Rael, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015).
Eric Rauchway, The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (Basic, 2015).
Nicholas Stargardt, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (Basic, 2015).
Rosemary Sullivan, Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (Harper, 2015).
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.
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.
Top 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. Continue reading “Civil War Monitor’s Best Books of 2015”
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. Continue reading “Ta-Nehisi Coates and Civil War Memory”