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
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.