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 past January historian Ken Noe shared his thoughts about the Civil War centennial and the current state of the sesquicentennial at the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery, Alabama. Ken’s edited collection of essays on Alabama’s Civil War was recently published by the University of Alabama Press.
At one point in the talk Ken suggests that an oral history project focused on Americans who lived through the centennial is needed. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great idea for a project.
Yesterday’s post reminded me that I never addressed a comment posed by Ken Noe from a few weeks ago in response to another story about the discovery of a supposed black Confederate. Ken wondered about the frequency of these stories in recent months.
You have me thinking, Kevin. As the heritage movement becomes more factionalized and in obvious cases radicalized, if the drift really is toward the sort of southern national cells and defenses of white exclusiveness Brooks Simpson has been chronicling of late, has the ‘black Confederate’ topic necessarily peaked? Is it becoming too “rainbow?” It occurred to me this morning that I’m running into it less often. But perhaps your experience is different.
Self-described racists in the Confederate heritage community refer to ‘Rainbow Confederates’ as those who envision an idealized Confederacy made up of blacks, whites and other ethnic groups peacefully co-existing. Black Confederate accounts minimize the story of slavery and white supremacy and attempt to situate the Confederacy within a broader narrative of racial progress. It’s a popular story for those in the Confederate heritage community who have a need to push the tough questions of race and slavery to the side.
I’ve also come across these stories less and less in recent months, but I am also at a loss to explain why. There may not be anything at all to explain, though I suspect the Virginia textbook scandal of 2010 has something to do with it. That story was picked up by local, national, and international news agencies. The frequency of stories related to United States Colored Troops has certainly emerged as the dominant racial narrative in the last year as has the broader theme of emancipation.
The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors. “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.
It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact. This is just another straw man argument. That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences. That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well. I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.
In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful. In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries. That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.
Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.
What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city. And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!