Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post in response to an essay by John Stauffer on the controversy surrounding the existence of black Confederates, which appeared in The Root. As you can see I believe there to be numerous factual and conceptual problems with many of the author’s claims. I do not wish to repeat them today. What I do want to suggest, however, is that Stauffer’s overall approach to this subject, specifically relating to the kinds of sources utilized, helps to make the case for increased attention to military history that have recently been made by Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier in the pages of The Journal of the Civil War Era and Earl Hess in Civil War History.
At the center of this controversy is a question about the status of Civil War soldiers. Between 1861 and 1865 somewhere around 3 million Americans served in Union and Confederate ranks. These men have been the subject of serious historical inquiry for at least the last 60 years, going back to Bell Wiley’s Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. The most thorough studies of their recruitment, organization, experience while in the ranks, and eventual discharge is predicated on a thorough understanding of the relevant sources. There are enlistment papers, muster rolls, draft records, compiled service records, and pension records. Both armies were managed by a military and civilian bureaucracy that only adds to the challenge of researching the men on both sides, who volunteered or were drafted. Continue reading “John Stauffer, Black Confederates, and the Case for 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?
Earl Hess’s productivity over the past five years is nothing short of mind-boggling. Imagine my surprise when UNC Press mailed me the latest in their Littlefield History of the Civil War series. While most people are still getting through his trilogy on Civil War earthworks Hess has released three more.
Virginia M. Adams, On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier’s Civil War Letters from the Front (University of Massachusetts Press, 1991).
Stephen Berry ed., Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (University of Georgia Press, 2011).
R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Earl J. Hess, The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Noah A. Trudeau, Voices of the 55th: Letters from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Morningside Press, 1996).
To be honest, the last thing that I need to be reading is another book on Abraham Lincoln given everything that has been published over the past few years. However, I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying Eric Foner’s new book on Lincoln and slavery and I suspect that it will quickly establish itself as the standard study – highly recommended. I will also have quite a lot to say about Earl Hess’s new book on the Crater, which is by far the most thorough study of the battle. Hess adds quite a bit to our understanding of the racial aspect of the battle.
Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction As America’s Continuing Civil War, (Fordham University Press, 2010).
Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery (Norton, 2010).
Earl J. Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg, (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).
Kate Masur, An Example For All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle for Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2011).