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.

Recently Published Civil War Books in 2002

Al Mackey has been posting old CSPAN videos of various Civil War events some of which are quite interesting. I perused the CSPAN archives and came across this session from one of Gary Gallagher’s UVA conferences on the Fredericksburg Campaign from 2002. The session features Gary along with Bob Krick, George Rable, R.E.L. Krick, Bill Bergen and Peter Carmichael.

The panelists discuss books that had then had just recently been published, including David Blight’s Race and Reunion, which was about a year old at the time. There is a wonderful exchange between Bob Krick and Peter about Paul Anderson’s study of Turner Ashby, which is a wonderful book. Anyway, it’s kind of interesting to see how the field has evolved in the past ten years.

Top Civil War Books for 2011 at The Civil War Monitor

Winter 2011

Yesterday I received the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor magazine.  I’ve only had a chance to skim through it, but the layout and content look great.  This issue includes essays by Glenn LaFantasie, James Marten, Steven Newton, and a pictorial piece by Ronald Coddington.  I recently purchased a 2-year subscription and I encourage you to do so as well.

This issue also includes selections for top books of 2011 by five historians including yours truly.  I am joined by George Rable, Robert K. Krick, Gerald Prokopowicz, and Ethan Rafuse.  What follows are my selections:

Click to continue

George Rable on “The Civil War As a Political Crisis”

Few Civil War historians have been more prolific over as large a segment of the historical landscape than George Rable of the University of Alabama.  I’ve read most of his books and I always find that my understanding of the period deepens as a result.  Rable is one of those historians that makes you smarter after having read one of his books.  My two favorites are The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics (Civil War America) and Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, which in my mind is one of the most innovative Civil War campaign studies ever written.  His most recent book is, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era), which I am thoroughly enjoying.

If you are not familiar with Rable’s scholarship this is the perfect place to start.

The Sesquicentennial is Alive and Well in Fredericksburg

Congratulations to John Hennessy of the NPS and Sara Poore of the Fredericksburg Area Museum for organizing a wonderful event yesterday that included a rare opportunity to tour the grounds of Brompton as well as listen to historians George Rable and William Freehling.  More than 600 people attended the event at the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church, which is quite an accomplishment given the beautiful weather as well as the subject.  Read John’s thoughts about the day’s proceedings at Fredericksburg Remembered.  John and Sara are two of the hardest working public historians in the business and I hope that the people of Fredericksburg appreciate their commitment to organizing programs for the local community that are both entertaining and educational.

One of the more interesting moments took place during the Q&A following John’s talk on the secession debate that took place in Fredericksburg.  A member of the audience suggested that the lack of slave rebellions during the antebellum period suggested to him that slaves may have, in fact been content.  No surprise that John handled the question directly and with the sensitivity that it deserved.  What surprised me, however, was that after John finished with his response a large percentage of the audience clapped.  The response suggests that these questions are no longer appropriate to ask.  Yes, we can have serious discussions about the complexity of the master-slave relationship, but thankfully we seem to have moved beyond being able to suggest that people were content being slaves.

Thanks to everyone involved for organizing this event.