I was intrigued by Brett Schulte’s recent post over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading which summarizes the most recent issue of the popular Civil War magazines. I like this feature of Brett’s blog as I rarely keep up with the large number of history magazines currently on the market. I appreciate Brett’s kind words re: my Crater article, which along with Peter Carmichael’s piece summarized below, were published in the most recent issue of America’s Civil War (May 2006). Here is Brett’s assessment of Carmichael’s article.
Peter Carmichael’s article on Chancellorsville is definitely of the “new military history” variety, looking at how two Confederate soldiers in the Stonewall Brigade, Henry Kyd Douglas and Owen T. Hedges, handled their experiences on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. He relates Douglas’ fabrication of how Brigade commander Franklin E. “Bull” Paxton met his end, and then goes into the reasons why Douglas might have done so. Carmichael goes on to commend Hedges for his “honest self-assessmentI”. One of the main themes of the author’s article is that military history is “dry” without liberally sprinkling in social history. I agree that looking at how soldiers’ felt is an important and perfectly valid topic of study, and that some might find this topic interesting. As a military history buff, I don’t believe it is needed as much as some would claim in traditional campaign and battle studies. There is plenty of room for both types of book in the study of the Civil War. As a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, I liken this to Jackie Robinson and his role as the first African-American to play in the modern (post-1900) game. A history of a given season of the Brooklyn Dodgers, say 1951, would not focus on the fact that Robinson was Black. Instead, it would focus on his contributions on the playing field (i.e. the “tactics” of a baseball game). Other books concentrate on Robinson’s role in paving the way for non-White players, as they rightly should. To me it is simply a matter of what is interesting to the individual reader.
In response to a recent post on my frustration with Civil War Roundtables, Brooks Simpson shared a comment from a review of an introduction that he did for a new edition of Joshua Chamberlain’s famous memoir, The Passing of the Armies. Apparently this reader was unhappy with Simpson’s deconstruction or interpretation of the memoir as something more than an accurate account of the war years.
The Passing of the Armies offers readers the opportunity to experience the trials and triumphs of the Civil War through the personal recollections of an authentic American hero. However, it is my opinion that the introduction by Brooks D. Simpson serves to disrupt the first hand experiences of Joshua Chamberlain by calling into question Chamberlain’s accuracy of events and his personal motives. Passing of the Armies should stand as one man’s first hand account of his life, leaving his critics to write their own book.
Brett’s review of Carmichael and this anonymous review of Simpson’s introduction highlight the gap between these two approaches to the study of the Civil War and serves to re-open one of the common themes of this blog: the apparent tension between social and traditional military history. In reference to Brett’s critique I don’t think that Carmichael’s point is simply that military history is “dry” without a broader focus, but that the failure to address broader themes renders the interpretation incomplete. Carmichael and other practitioners are not simply “sprinkling in social history” because it is fashionable, but because they believe that a broader analytical approach reveals a more sophisticated understanding of the past. I want to be clear that I have absolutely no problem with one’s personal preferences. If you happen to be interested in straight-forward military history with its concentration on the battlefield so be it. What one claims to be interested in is not a proper topic of debate since it can be characterized as a descriptive claim of one’s preferences. However, the claim that the “New Military History” is simply a matter of preference cannot be dismissed so easily. There is room for debate as to the merits of the approach. It cannot simply be pushed aside as a “flavor of ice cream” or reduced to “personal preference.” Simpson’s point in his introduction to Chamberlain’s memoir reveals why a broader critical approach to sources is so important. You simply can’t treat a memoir as a “first-hand account” of the war. He penned it years after the war ended and clearly had an agenda. Carmichael’s point also rams home the point that a more thoughtful critique of sources utilizing the approaches as outlined in cultural and social histories is absolutely essential to understanding the accounts of Douglas and Owens. Whether you agree or disagree with their conclusions can lead to an interesting debate, but there arguments cannot be dispensed with by giving it the back of your hand because it doesn’t mesh with your personal preferences or tastes.
We need to move beyond the naïve dichotomy of social/cultural history v. military history. I hope my little piece on the Crater says more than just my personal preference for social history v. military history. You can do both w/o losing the attraction of the battlefield. Implicit in my ACW article is the argument that you can’t understand Confederate accounts of the battle without a broader approach. Their wartime accounts are part of an interpretation that stretches beyond the battlefield. Their accounts connect to the home front, politics, and race. Their own accounts point in this direction as opposed to the claim that historians are imposing their own agenda on the past. Of course the pitfalls of presentism abound, but they can be avoided through a careful reading of the sources. If you disagree with that premise then provide an argument against it. Please don’t tell me that you find my flavor displeasing. You can disagree, but disagreements imply debate/dialogue. I welcome it.