What Do We Need To Know About Traditional 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?

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34 comments… add one
  • Paul Taylor Dec 12, 2014 @ 5:01

    Is it possible that this perceived military vs. social history kerfuffle is nothing more than new generations of scholars seeking fresh ground? Perhaps there is no real bias toward traditional ACW military history. Instead, maybe the relatively younger professional and nonprofessional historians are simply looking for something “new” or unexplored to analyze and write about. After all, just as an example, how many more tactical or strategic analyses of Gettysburg do we really need?

    • Greg Biggs Dec 12, 2014 @ 7:24


      This has been going on since the 1980s based on what the late Grady McWhiney discovered in his survey. It is anti-war in nature. I have nothing against teaching students the social, civilian, home front, etc. about the Civil War…or any war…just so long as the war is also taught. This is not about yet another Gettysburg book for the general public – but it is about teaching students what happened in that battle. A friend of mine was at Brandeis in the 80s and wanted to do a paper on some aspect of Gettysburg and was guided away from that by his adviser into doing something on court martial records. From the evidence I have seen fewer and fewer colleges teach the military side of things these days.

      • Meg Dec 12, 2014 @ 8:40

        Greg, et al–
        I have an unusual advantage here–I am OLD! I first took my hippy self off to college in 1967, and everything was pretty much anti-war. I even remember “Ain’t gonna study war no more” as a song lyric. My academic career has not been a straight trajectory from student to teacher. There has been a LOT in between. So–when I finally got to where I could actually be what I always had wanted to be–some variety of historian–and I could afford the Masters in both time and money, I was far from 1967, believe me!

        I live in Central CA, and I first checked local universities for courses in specifically Military History, with a Civil War emphasis. THERE IS NOTHING!!! Not even Berkeley has squat in this area. In fact, there were only two places that offered what I was looking for: Norwich and American Public University. I chose APU for price and ease of use on the internet. I could not be happier.

        Greg is absolutely correct when he says that Military History went into the sewer because of Vietnam. I lived this. I still live it, because you can’t get a decent degree in it, even from Berkeley, in California.

        I am glad to see its rebirth, and proud to be a part of it. It is coming back stronger, bigger, with more intellectual vigor and depth than ever. Old white men are no longer the purveyors of all military information–WE are, men, women, old, young, but all vitally interested in helping repair this tapestry that defines the middle of the 19th century for America. The energy in this blog surely proves that my assessment is correct–and I say Huzzah to us all! I think Military History is finally coming into its own.

  • Greg Biggs Dec 9, 2014 @ 20:14

    Interesting comments. I know Earl Hess and have great respect for him as a Civil War historian. Yet his thesis is not new. The late Grady McWhiney did a survey of universities in the 1980s with regards to what they were teaching in Civil War and military history and found that there was little military in any of it. Instead it aimed more at social, gender and slavery for the Civil War and some of that for other eras of war. Little on battles, leadership, strategy, etc. that would have given a much fuller understanding of the events of whatever war the class was covering. Students that signed up for these classes were failed by their professors who taught the classes about things military while leaving out things military. McWhiney found that many professors were anti-war Vietnam era students who carried their biases into their class rooms. My response about hearing of McWhiney’s findings was simple – well, it was a war! I loved what Meg posted in terms of what she has been taught in her schooling which is exactly how military history should be taught. Instead colleges load students up with all types of crap courses where, at some point, it is hoped that they learn to ask, “do you want fries with that?” Because that’s what the degrees in these crap courses will get them in the real world. Sure glad that I was in college when I was before all of this nonsense took root.

  • Dan Weinfeld Dec 9, 2014 @ 13:55

    Between the Gallagher/Meir piece in the current Journal of the CW and this Hess piece in CWH, there are more articles complaining about the lack of military history in academic journals than actual military history. Maybe the military historian’s jeremiad is a trending as a scholarly genre?

  • TF Smith Dec 8, 2014 @ 16:22

    Well, from my (very limited) perspective, writing labor history that deals with organized labor and the impact of the maritime trades unions in the US but without understanding the differences between passengers and cargo, liner service and tramps, and sail and steam (as examples), would be somewhat pointless.

    I haven’t read Hess’ piece yet either, but for someone writing about – for example – the Civil War without mastery of (at least) the chronology of battle, much less both sides’ overarching strategies, seems useless. Even someone focused on, say, Civil War medicine, or the social history of Natchez before and during the US liberation/occupation, or the impact of the war on women’s suffrage, should be expert in the basics of where and when the war, and specific campagns, were fought, and how those campaigns influenced the underlying issue being examined.

    Context is foundational, and there are few things more vital in wartime than the ebb and flow of battle.


  • David Silbey Dec 8, 2014 @ 15:14

    I take Hess’ point. If you’re going to write about the military and wars, it is incumbent upon to understand how armies (and navies and air forces) work, and how wars happen, and how specific wars were waged. I would hope a historian of medicine would not write about the history of disease without understanding how the diseases are caught, transmitted, experienced, and cured. So, too, a historian of war.

    But then a historian of war should also understand the social, cultural, racial, economic, legal, and political underpinnings of war before they set out to write about the battles and battlefields.

    I’ve not read Hess’ article, but I do worry that it’s a way of dismissing the New Military History rather than engaging with it.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2014 @ 15:16

      Thanks for the comment, David. Hess himself has written what would qualify as New Military History so he is definitely not dismissing it. Rather, he is concerned with what he perceives as a diminishing interest in the very points that you make in your comment. Hess is looking for a reconfiguration.

      • David Silbey Dec 8, 2014 @ 16:07

        Thanks, Kevin.

    • W. W. S. Hsieh Dec 8, 2014 @ 20:21

      I for one would like to do away with the nomenclature of “new military history”. I wrote the following on FB:

      Since any form of scholarly typology is by definition going to be a bit crude, I can’t say I have a serious problem with Hess’ categories. I will say, however, that the use of the terms “traditional” and “new” sometimes invite the worst (and usually unstated) tendencies toward Whiggishness in the profession, with current generations of scholars believing that they are correcting the morally dubious and intellectually vacuous failings of their predecessors. As someone who’s done both, Hess is obviously *not* doing that, but I think the terminology is possibly misleading for scholars not completely familiar with the complicated (and “transnational”) historiography and intellectual origins of military history writ large.

      Very early on (Dennis Showalter wrote a famous article on this), “traditional” military historians pushed back against the “new” military history. The main concern was losing sight of the violence at the center of military institutions for the sake of what was essentially social history applied to military organizations, generally in peacetime. In contrast, John Keegan’s call for bottom-up military history, but with battle still at the center, found hearty support among those who lived on the field’s bleeding edge. Indeed, if you were well read scholar such as Showalter and traced your discipline’s origins back to Delbruck and Clausewitz and Thucydides, the notion that all military historians did was tedious battle narrative until the enlightened Age of the Pinto arrived was absurd on its face (Keegan himself acknowledged the ancients in Face of Battle). I prefer the “inside-out” notion Gallagher and Meier used, and when I talk about “traditional” military history, I personally prefer the term “operational” (although that has its own downsides). I’m not sure if the genre distinction has ever really been that useful, but it seems especially problematic now. Look, for example, at General Lee’s Army by Joseph Glatthaar which mixes the statistical number crunching of the now-not-so-new social history with Freeman-like command history and insights usually associated with cultural history. The same could be said if we went further afield outside of American history to work such as Isabel Hull’s _Absolute Destruction_ or J. E. Lendons’ _Soldiers and Ghosts_, both of which owe a lot to cultural history methods but remain very operational.

  • Total Dec 8, 2014 @ 14:56

    In other words, the study of the ancient world makes your brain work in ways that the modern one, for the most part, can’t, possibly paying dividends when studying, say, the American Civil War.

    Or, if we’re going to be competitive about it, ancient historians can just make stuff up, and modernists have to respect the sources.

    See how easy that is?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2014 @ 14:57

      Come again. This completely went over my head.

      • Total Dec 8, 2014 @ 15:00

        Ben was arguing that ancient historians are superior because they aren’t spoon fed information:

        I respect those historians very knowledgeable in at least one civilization or period of the ancient world, and perhaps to a lesser extent the Medieval, more than those historians whose expertise is only in modern history, because those spoiled modernists are typically rolling in information, even in those areas where the sources are more sparse, with relatively infrequent, minor gaps in the historical record that can be easily filled; they are spoon fed information, and rarely are they compelled to speculate even a little.

        And I thought I would return the pomposity to him a bit.

    • Ben Allen Dec 9, 2014 @ 11:50

      “Or, if we’re going to be competitive about it, ancient historians can just make stuff up, and modernists have to respect the sources.” I give you Bill O’Reilly. Both modernists and classicists have the same potential to disrespect sources. Moreover, the stuff on which ancient historians have to speculate are those aforementioned gaping holes in the historical record, where there are no sources to respect. If the information is simply fuzzy, then they have to make their best supposition given what the ancient writings tell them. Also, the best of them frequently qualify their statements with words such as “probably,” “possibly,” and “perhaps.”

      On the other hand, it might be easier for classicists to be respectful to the sources, since they usually do not have to trace a claim for long until they reach its source. Few classicists seem to quote the ancients from other secondary sources, unlike modernists.

  • Ben Allen Dec 8, 2014 @ 9:38

    I regard anything pertaining to a war as military history, not just battles, commanders, weaponry, soldiery slang, external influences and impacts (particularly public opinion and politics), strategy, tactics, and uniforms. My definition covers other aspects that affect armed forces and their campaigns more subtly at least: gender, race, home front, social change, economics, commerce, governmental wartime measures that are not directly related to the battlefield, literature, new words added to the vocabulary, art, minorities, music, and last but not least, postwar memory. Any gaps stretching even one entire aforementioned category impedes the comprehension of another, regardless of how weak was the relationship between them.

    If “traditional military history” encompasses only the narrow study of military affairs and battles, I want nothing to do with it. If it has to do with the study of every war (or at least their battles, campaigns, leaders, tactics, and strategy), then historians need to know everything, from Kadesh to Syria today. In my opinion, I respect those historians very knowledgeable in at least one civilization or period of the ancient world, and perhaps to a lesser extent the Medieval, more than those historians whose expertise is only in modern history, because those spoiled modernists are typically rolling in information, even in those areas where the sources are more sparse, with relatively infrequent, minor gaps in the historical record that can be easily filled; they are spoon fed information, and rarely are they compelled to speculate even a little. Conversely, classicists almost invariably encounter a dearth in the written record, and frequently have to settle for secondary sources in the absence of primary ones. Even then, what sources they do possess, primary and secondary, are typically of dubious reliability. Consequently, there are vast gaps in the knowledge of classical history, so classicists commonly have to rely on their own judgment to sufficiently fill them in with speculation, and to a greater extent than any modernist. In other words, the study of the ancient world makes your brain work in ways that the modern one, for the most part, can’t, possibly paying dividends when studying, say, the American Civil War.

  • Barbara Gannon Dec 8, 2014 @ 7:47

    It should be noted that no one is questioning Hess on the part of his article about how hard it is to be a military historian in academia and the affect on Civil War studies.

    • Meg Dec 8, 2014 @ 12:13

      Ben–your first paragraph is spot on, I think. But then, for academia to stay viable, it must move and grow. As those of us who wish to widen the parameters of Military History push to do so in the ways you suggested above, there is pushback from more traditional military historians. Instead of seeing this as a problem, I choose to see it as part of the exciting dynamic that creates change. As more women join the ranks of military historians, I expect the battle to heat up! It’s a great time to be a woman who is also a military historian. Huzzah!

  • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Dec 7, 2014 @ 17:11

    Kevin, I think this is a fair critique, and here’s how I would try to answer your question, rather quickly and off the cuff:

    Lots of folks like to talk about how Civil War history needs to go transnational. See Stephen Berry’s comments in the JCWE forum on future scholarship a few years ago. Here’s example of how that can go wrong without a military historians’ feel for the ground truth of military operations. On pg. 143 of C. A. Bayly’s well-received (and genuinely impressive) history of the larger nineteenth-century, _The Birth of the Modern World_, he writes, “the most pervasive and long-term effects of the Civil War were registered in the domain of war making itself. In many respects, this was the first heavily mechanized war in history. Heavy guns devastated troop formations, and whole cities were destroyed by bombardment. Cameras were now on hand to record suffering and to stimulate patriotism.” Whole cities! Really? Mechanized war! What does that mean, exactly? This isn’t simply a question of getting a few minor details wrong–if one wants to make an argument about state formation and the very creation of a “modern world” different in a profound way from the “pre-modern” period, getting questions of scale wrong compromises the larger analytical point/narrative. Indeed, questions of the individual’s relation to the state, and of the war’s modern-ness underly a lot of Civil War scholarship (I’m especially thinking of Drew Faust’s superb work on death).

    Faust makes that disquiet with modernity pretty clear, describing a world where “even as individuals and their fates assumed new significance, so those individuals threatened to disappear into the bureaucracy and mass slaughter of modern warfare. We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world” (_Republic of Suffering_, p. 271). But what if this cultural trope Faust invests with material reality is really…. just a cultural trope, and it turns out the Civil War did not represent some cataclysmic break between the modern and the pre-modern, one more or less violent? Or if the story is actually much, much more complicated? What if one could find large amounts of violence and wartime social mobilization in other eras that lacked the self-aware and aggrandizing rhetoric of modernity–say the Taiping Wars, or the Thirty Years War, or the Punic Wars? But how could someone make such an argument, *without* understanding enough about the actual workings of warfare both within and outside the American Civil War? Good scholarship generally embraces complexity, but I would argue that a lot of scholars in our field know too little about military operations to have anything more than an over-simplified view of such matters–and that this can cause serious problems, because war and violence intersect and impinge so many other issues.

  • Barbara Gannon Dec 7, 2014 @ 15:52

    1) The Civil War is one part of a broader US military experience, they were volunteer armies for a reason.
    2) There is a broader world military history that can help you make sense of the Civil War, I am reading Victor David Hanson and while I do not fully agree with him, his ideas about Greek warfare might point a way forward for CW types.
    3) Meg is right, for God’s sake please understand that these were amateur army’s facing horrific circstances, even the professional leadership had not commanded a regiment in peacetime.
    4) Tactics are for amateurs, logistics for professionals.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2014 @ 16:14

      There is an unresolved tension in Hess’s essay. At times he seems concerned with those cases where historians in the War Studies and New Military History camps write about the military and the value of their scholarship. I am less concerned about the number of traditional military history studies published than I am with the veracity of what social and cultural historians write when they cross that boundary.

  • Marc Blackburn Dec 7, 2014 @ 15:42

    I am military historian (Ph.D, Temple University, ’92). The comments by Mr. Hess are by no means new. There has been tension between those who are interested in drum and trumpets (traditional military history) and let’s call it military studies. As a whole, the field needs both types of history and, with due diligence by editors, I think many of the errors that Mr. Hess mentions, might be taken care before a manuscript hits the bookshelves. I work in the field of public history and I think the audience is ready for a more sophisticated look at military history. In a time when audiences are declining at cultural and heritage institutions around the country, the question not only becomes one of accurate information but relevance. There are lots of opportunities for military historians of all types to cooperate with each other. It is much more difficult making these finding relevant to modern audiences.

  • Meg Dec 7, 2014 @ 13:13

    The most common thing, and it is sometimes pretty irritating, is to continually read about “why didn’t this or this happen?” Why didn’t Meade pursue Lee after Gettysburg, for instance. He did pursue Lee. He sent his cavalry as quickly as he could, but geez! Gettysburg! The armies lay in heaps of ruined men for a 25 square mile area. It poured buckets of rain, there was no plan in the town for dealing with the aftermath of this battle. I can imagine Meade just wanting to cover his ears and scream, but generals don’t do that. Lee was devastated as well. He had to decide how many doctors to leave behind, how many injured to take with him, how to be the leader he needed to be for his beaten command staff while he personally dealt with losing a battle he had promised the entire Confederacy that he would win. Just look at his correspondence with Davis on the matter!

    And yet . . . we all know the arguments. Even President Lincoln was guilty of second-guessing Meade and overestimating Lee.

    It is this extra layer of knowing the responsibilities of command, for instance, that have helped me not to just assume Meade was somehow an inadequate commander, which is the prevailing historiography. This, I hope, is always evident in my own work.

    Is this what you mean?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2014 @ 13:18

      Your comment points to the importance of logistics and command structure in the wake of a major battle. Thanks.

  • Meg Dec 7, 2014 @ 12:50

    I am getting a Masters in Military History at American Public University, and we are required to take classes in Strategy and Tactics, Command Structure, Command, Leadership and Control, and to evidence an ability to read a map series of a battle. We do not get to our specialization (Civil War, in my case) without reading deeply in Military Philosophy, ancient to current, and without looking at a variety of different wars. For instance, I knew little about Korea until I tool my classes at APU.

    All of our classes have been, in my opinion, very firmly grounded in traditional military history. The choices of professors. however, is so terrific that a student who has the inclination to look more around the edges of that particular box may do so with encouragement.

    Additionally, we are taught to write in military history, which has its own set of requirements. We get dinged if we do not adhere to the rules such as–the first time anyone makes an appearance in the manuscript, he or she is given as complete an introduction as possible. Hence “Grant” becomes “Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.” Later in the paper he may simply be “Grant, but certainly not the first time.

    Personally, I am glad I went the Military History route for my Masters. I think my understanding is the Civil War is much deeper for having done so.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2014 @ 12:58

      Hi Meg,

      Thanks so much for adding your voice to this thread. Given your training do you see any common oversights or conceptual errors when you read a book about the Civil War?

  • Al Mackey Dec 7, 2014 @ 7:51

    Your description of the battle was accurate, Kevin. He’s talking about others who don’t get their facts right. Let’s take Mahone, for instance. I think you accurately described what he did at the Crater and afterward. Imagine if you said that he commanded a regiment at the Crater instead of a brigade. It’s bad history, and it would come from a fundamental confusion of a regiment with a brigade. So one basic item of knowledge would be the various unit levels in the war from army down to company or even squad, and a familiarity with the basic command structures.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2014 @ 8:04

      So one basic item of knowledge would be the various unit levels in the war from army down to company or even squad, and a familiarity with the basic command structures.

      Since you are well read in the field do you see this as a problem?

      • Al Mackey Dec 7, 2014 @ 8:27

        Well, that was just an example I dreamed up as an illustration. I haven’t read the manuscripts Professor Hess has reviewed, and the few memory studies I’ve read didn’t have any major problems that I saw. I guess I’ve been fortunate in that regard. One thing I see pop up a lot concerns McClellan’s Harrison’s Landing Letter and criticism of him regarding that letter based on a misunderstanding of his role as a senior military leader and not knowing that he had received Lincoln’s prior permission to submit that letter with his views. In fact, I’ve seen what I see as misunderstandings of McClellan in general. I’ve seen misunderstandings of the “Lee to the Rear” episodes, misunderstandings of why the POW exchanges were halted, and misunderstandings of Cold Harbor. In many cases, the author no doubt took the word of another author of a previous work which had subsequently been overturned by updated scholarship about which the writer was unaware.

  • Keith Harris Dec 7, 2014 @ 7:15

    Graduate students throwing together pale imitations of David Blight is so ten years ago.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2014 @ 8:04


      • Keith Harris Dec 7, 2014 @ 10:20

        In all seriousness, though – do you mind if I steal this for my site? I will, of course, credit you as inspiration.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2014 @ 12:38

          It’s an unfortunate claim given the range of memory studies that we’ve seen over the past few years. Steal away.

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