Another Look at Civil War Military History

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.

UVA’s John L. Nau III Center For Civil War Studies Opens Today

Later today the University of Virginia’s new Civil War center will open with an inaugural event that will feature Gary Gallagher, Elizabeth Varon, Thavolia Glymph, and Ed Ayers in a roundtable discussion about the state of the field of Civil War history. The center is being funded with a grant from John L. Nau III, who is also the benefactor behind Gallagher’s endowed chair and the center’s director. Continue reading “UVA’s John L. Nau III Center For Civil War Studies Opens Today”

Cold Harbor to the Crater: Hot Off the Presses

forthcoming, September 2015The official release date is a little over a week away, but Amazon is currently showing Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign as in-stock. This is the latest release in UNC Press’s Military Campaigns of the Civil War series following an eight year lull. This latest volume is edited by Gary Gallagher and Caroline Janney. The volume includes an essay of mine, which focuses on how white Union soldiers responded to fighting alongside USCTs at the Crater. This is research that should have made it into my book on the Crater.

Here is a list of contributors and the titles of their essays: Continue reading “Cold Harbor to the Crater: Hot Off the Presses”

Gary Gallagher Says Farewell to the Civil War America Series

Update: I’ve been informed that a number of forthcoming titles are being shepherded through the publication process by Gallagher. My post title probably implies a bit more finality than is warranted. I should note that a forthcoming title in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series that is co-edited by Gallagher and Caroline Janney will include an essay of mine on the Crater. That volume will be released in the Fall.

This past week I received a number of advanced copies from the University of North Carolina Press. It’s the first batch of books, where I’ve noticed that Gary Gallagher’s name no longer appears as a series editor. As many of you know Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Peter Carmichael, and Caroline Janney are taking over editing responsibilities for the press’s Civil War America series.

I think it’s worth acknowledging just how important this series has been to our understanding of the Civil War era. The series began unofficially in 1987 with the release of Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day. The series was launched officially in 1993 with Tom Cutrer’s biography of Ben McCulloch. The total number of books in the series under Gallagher’s editorship is 113. I’ve been reading books in this series since the mid-1990s and since roughly 2005 the press has been kind enough to send me review copies of all Civil War-related titles. Looking around my private library I can find Civil War America titles in every section from slavery to antebellum politics to battlefield studies, and Northern and Southern home fronts. I’ve read practically all of them. Continue reading “Gary Gallagher Says Farewell to the Civil War America Series”

John Stauffer, Black Confederates, and the Case for Military History

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”