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.

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30 comments… add one
  • Sherree Nov 27, 2015 @ 11:43


    A follow-up comment on Sand Creek, if I may.

    I am struck by how similar the massacres at Sand Creek and–over one hundred years later–at My Lai, truly were. It is incredible. Both reveal what is worst, and best, in our society. Both involved unbridled racist carnage, and unparalleled heroism on the part of a precious few. At Sand Creek, Silas Soule refused to order his men to kill women and children, and at My Lai, Hugh Thompson, Jr. physically stood between our soldiers who did obey the order to murder civilians and some of the men, women, and children who were to be murdered, then ordered his men to shoot US soldiers if those soldiers fired on the unarmed villagers he was protecting. That is history that takes the concept of the citizen soldier to a whole new level, and history that deserves to be honored. Before we can honor what these men did, though, we have to understand why they did what they did, and that means talking about the respective massacres, which we are finally doing.

    Ok, too much Thanksgiving turkey 🙂 As one of your commenters said above, you have to decide how deep you are going to drill. That is deep enough for now.

    There is an interesting article in the VQR by a Vietnam veteran, Philip D. Beidler, entitled, “Calley’s Ghost”. I remember the My Lai massacre and all of the controversy surrounding it very well. What I did not know, however, or had forgotten if I did know it, is that Calley is not in jail.‘s-ghost

    There is another interesting article in the Smithsonian Magazine entitled “Sand Creek Massacre”. (Dec., 2014, Tony Horwitz In the article Horwitz says the following:

    “Military personnel stationed in Colorado have been frequent visitors (to the new NPS monument) as well, including officers in a combat brigade headed to Afghanistan; for them Sand Creek offered a harrowing and cautionary lesson about the treatment of native inhabitants.”

    If this assessment is true, here we have a seamless intersecting of military history, non military history, and past and present, in a constructive way. Now that is the way to “do” history. In addition, and more importantly, a very old injustice has finally begun to be rectified and the descendants of those slain, along with Native men and women in general who visit the Sand Creek site and leave their tobacco offerings and prayer ties–praying in their way, honoring in their way–can begin to find peace.

  • Sherree Nov 26, 2015 @ 1:55

    “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….But on the battlefield where all participants by definition spill the blood of their opponents, many academic historians can find no such straightforward logic…..”

    Well, there seems to be a very straightforward logic when it comes to the murder of civilians, which is basically what happened at Sand Creek. Not only were the warriors in the camp not prepared for battle; Black Kettle was flying an American flag. Finally, finally, the true history of this shameful incident of our nation’s past is being brought to the forefront. Had it been openly discussed and widely known years ago in military history, perhaps the massacre at My Lai would not have occurred.

    I am currently reading Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America. The following is a remarkable quote from a “PC” historian who was, somehow, “PC” in the 1930s:

    “When General Thomas rode over the battlefield (Nashville), and saw the bodies of colored men side by side with the foremost on the very works of the enemy, he turned to his staff, saying ‘Gentlemen, the question is settled: Negroes will fight.’

    How extraordinary, and what a tribute, to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even liberals, only murder makes men. The slave pleaded; he was humble; he protected the women of the South, and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man!” (page 110)

    This quote from Du Bois effectively sums up the problem of fitting Native men and women into the narrative of US history, particularly the Plains nations: they refused to assimilate, and well they might, since this land was their land for thousands of years before the first white man set foot on it.

    Happy Thanksgiving here on Turtle Island. Thanks, Kevin, for all that you do.

  • Tom Arliskas Nov 24, 2015 @ 8:10

    If you do not know what PC history is–I do not want to get into that topic– It is to politically charged at the moment. By agenda, I do not want to see our American History changed–challenged yes. As an example, I see often, albeit on Social Media, that President Lincoln inhumanely hung 32 Sioux in the aftermath of the Sioux Uprising in 1862. What the author of this post did not know is, that the 32 hung confessed or were pointed out by witnesses as the actual murderers. So- my point, History is being used to condemn an historical figure in a 1 paragraph blip on a blog– without actually researching what happened. I am digressing on the topic– and it is only my opinion on what I see– I could be 110% wrong– or right– I agree with you that both military and social historical outcomes are necessary– We can learn from both of them— Thank You for your efforts in Civil War History– I share the passion…

    • Jimmy Dick Nov 24, 2015 @ 10:32

      Why did you leave out the part about the trials being shams? For someone who dislikes a particular version of history you sure seem to like to leave out parts of history in order to present your own opinion of what it was.

  • Tom Arliskas Nov 24, 2015 @ 4:40

    I do not understand the question. “…Somehow detached from, an agenda”- Yes and No would be my response, based on who or what you are writing about. If you are a soldiers, material culture, Battles, Campaign Historian, or that is your interest, then “NO” they are not detached. If you are a Social Science, Philosophical, humanist, than “YES” it can be detached from a viewpoint that the aftermath of Battles are more important than the Battles and Campaigns themselves. I will state for the record, in my humble opinion, that both are worth the effort historically to study. I had an interest in the Grand Army of the Republic and was part of group working to save the OLD SOLDIERS HOME here in Milwaukee. The old Vets suffered alcoholism, suicide, and poverty. A direct result of their combat experience in the Civil War? Some yes, some no. A number were alcoholics when they went into service and some had mental, “issues” as well. Did War aggravate the problem? Probably— For all, no– I enjoy personally reading about Battles, Generals, and soldiers accounts– that is my passion. I will acknowledge the social histories, but not my interest. I just hope in the next 25 years, that all I see written on Military History are not PC. History is History with all its warts.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2015 @ 5:39

      You were the one who referred to an “agenda”.

      I just hope in the next 25 years, that all I see written on Military History are not PC.

      What is and what is not a PC military history? I have no idea what this means.

      • Jimmy Dick Nov 24, 2015 @ 7:48

        I would like to see some more clarification on what constitutes PC history as well.

        • Tom Arliskas Nov 24, 2015 @ 8:29

          A perfect example– The Sand Creek Massacre, 1864, carried out by the Colorado Militia– It was terrible we all agree– BUT!! What actually transpired is that just two weeks before the Militia attack a group of settlers were massacred by Native Americans just outside Denver. The bodies brought in and each Colorado Volunteer was able to view the bodies of mutilated men and women– Those who did the killing were reported to be in the camp or area of Black Kettles people. Whether they were or not is not the question. Some say they were. Historically the horrors done by the Colorado Volunteers is shameful, but the reason why— just two weeks before a massacre of white settlers.The speaker at the 2014 conference did not want to present the massacre of whites in his presentation– I asked why? That is an historical fact that had a direct bearing on the attitudes of the Militia as revenge!! He would not bring it up, because it did not fit into the PC view of Native Americans— in general, not critically in military history– The question of Black Confederates serving in the CS Army is another– which is still being fought. Lee the MARBLE MAN– that shook folks up– GRANT as a butcher– that is another. The reason why the Black troops were slaughtered in the crater is when they were charging– they were screaming, “no quarter”– and it came back to them in vengeance– I am done here— Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

          • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2015 @ 8:33

            It sounds like you disagree with an interpretation you heard at a talk. Historians disagree about any number of things when they write about the same event. Characterizing an interpretation as PC says nothing substantial about that interpretation.

            I am sorry that your are “done here” given that you never really got started. 🙂

            • Tom Arliskas Nov 24, 2015 @ 9:28

              I sat down and talked to the author and professor before the presentation– He sat at my table and we discussed his presentation– and he brought up the research he discovered while writing a book on the subject on the settler massacre just weeks before the 1864 Sand Creek massacre- The man is a professor of history– and he was not going to bring it up– Why? Sympathy? Did not fit his narrative? Scared? PC? The information should be told and the audience can make up their mind on the justification or not of the slaughter of Native Americans. I can read from your comments– you do not agree with me– that is fine– I said it is just my opinion– and my personal thoughts on Military History. Enjoyed my time with you– and your comment, “given you really never got started”– even in jest– hurt.

              • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2015 @ 9:31

                I am familiar with the historian you are likely referring to as well as his book, which won a number of prizes.

                The man is a professor of history– and he was not going to bring it up– Why? Sympathy? Did not fit his narrative? Scared? PC?

                You pose what you suspect are his reasons as questions, which suggests to me that you don’t know. Either way, we are getting nowhere so let’s just end this thread. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

          • Jimmy Dick Nov 24, 2015 @ 10:24

            You left out the part where whites were killing Native Americans all over the region for months prior to the massacre which ignited a running conflict. Also, the fact that Chivington knew the people at Sand Creek has nothing to do with the conflict and had been sent there by military authorities. Sounds to me you just want your history to show what you want it to be, not what it actually was.

            As for Black Confederates, they didn’t exist. That’s been proven repeatedly. Surely you are not going to bring that up again so it can get shot back down?

            When I see the words PC that usually indicates someone is dissatisfied with what is being written because it refutes their beliefs. In this case, that seems to be exactly the case.

            • Tom Arliskas Nov 24, 2015 @ 10:59

              Well, I just stated what I was told in a polite conversation with the professor– I did not embark on a detailed research sabbatical on the Sand Creek massacre of 1864. I could have, but I did not. You have no comment on the fact that the bodies of massacred settlers were brought into Denver and viewed by the Volunteers. That would set the stage for revenge, would it not? As to Native Americans being shot all over Colorado– I believe you— The Indian Trouble of 1864 is history. That the Native Americans who killed the settlers sought refuge in the camp, there is evidence.. Don’t ask me to state– foot note and source– that is what the professor told me– Did he lie to me? I don’t believe he did. Black Confederates! That one is up in the air– Academics state it was impossible because African-Americans could not enlist as soldiers in the Confederate Army. That is true– but many did serve unwillingly as teamsters, cooks, servants and there at least two descriptions of black men actually fighting Yankees in combat– from diaries– yes! Black Confederate soldiers not in the lawful sense as enlisted CS soldiers– but fighting for whom and what?– It is all opinion so far– as to my PC comments– that hits a nerve with people– as to my desire to re-write history for my agenda– I do not and I will never do that– and to accuse me of it is not very nice– Have a great Thanksgiving and I will you on the Battlefield of Civil History– Warts and all!!!

              • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2015 @ 11:06

                Now you just sound uninformed.

                • Tom Arliskas Nov 24, 2015 @ 12:02

                  Well, that is your opinion– and like elbows everybody has one or two– The trials were shams? Let me see your notes on that– I am a member of the Sioux War 1962 organization and am a personal friend of Steve Osman State Historian and Chairman and receive their newsletter– The transcripts are available to read and to call them a sham is to insinuate that Lincoln had 32 hung for no reason– he hung those who confessed or under the testimony of witnesses– I stand by those transcripts– Have a Happy Thanksgiving– Sorry if I offended– History is interesting– Keep reading your history– hope you find what “YOU” are looking for– God Bless– Tom

                  • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2015 @ 12:05

                    Thanks for stopping by, Tom. Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.

                  • Jimmy Dick Nov 24, 2015 @ 16:00
                    • Jimmy Dick Nov 24, 2015 @ 17:16

                      I think it would be very interesting to hear what Steve Osman has to say about those trials since he is a retired senior historian with the Minnesota Historical Society and managed Fort Snelling for three decades.

                      It is kind of funny how every source I find on the trials indicates they were less than exemplary. Those sources all refer to the primary sources as well. In fact, they all seem to say the same thing, that the trials were rushed and not really legitimate.

                      So that leaves us with two different interpretations: Yours and everyone else’s. What is the name of the organization you belong to? Oh, and 38 Dakota were hung in the mass execution. It was to be 39 but one was spared. Others would be hung later over time while still others would be shot as it seems Minnesota put a bounty on the Dakota.

                      Of course, let’s not forget what caused the entire affair, the actions of greedy whites who kept breaking their promises to the Dakota just as whites broke their promises to the Native Americans for centuries.

              • Jimmy Dick Nov 24, 2015 @ 11:47

                But I do ask you to provide the source. Especially since the evidence points out the exact opposite. That is why we use sources and do not rely on “something we heard.”

                You have a nice Thanksgiving as well, Tom.

  • Tom Arliskas Nov 23, 2015 @ 14:55

    So now we have a historical contextual war in progress– Those who see the old Civil War books from 1865 through 1980 as, “a thing of the past.” That the people who were actually in the Civil War or knew Civil War Veterans and wrote books about Battles and Generals are no longer significant sources of history? Well, that cuts it!! My opinion is this new, “social and political crowd,” will write books not for general consumption and learning, but for an agenda. Grown out of the politics of the last 10 years that will find the old guys not interested, and the new guys floundering in a garden of social convictions and PC. Give me the Battles, Generals, and a well researched view on the outcomes. War is a horrible thing. We know that. We also don’t want to lose a War in the future.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2015 @ 15:12

      Are you assuming that traditional battles and leaders books are somehow detached from what you describe as “an agenda”? If so, you would be seriously mistaken.

  • James F. Epperson Nov 23, 2015 @ 14:30

    My opinion: War is often “history’s dynamic;” IOW, war changes a lot of things, rapidly. Battle/campaign studies are the dynamic of the dynamic, and you can’t understand why the war had the result it did if you don’t understand the actual military events. So “traditional” military history is necessary to understanding warfare. And quality writing/editing is necessary regardless of whether it is traditional military history or social/political history.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 23, 2015 @ 13:30

    I had to read it twice just to get a handle on what was being said. But now that I’ve wrapped my mind around the hyper analysis, I’ll say that those who have written, or are writing, battle or campaign histories are often their own worse enemy. Aside from often being incredibly dull or cumbersome, they often focus on combat without any perspective or why the fighting they are describing was even occurring. It’s like writing in a vacuum. Then there is the borderline idolatry that is often exhibited toward characters in such military histories.

    That being said, battle histories are crucial for this very reason: the ground on which they were fought is key to understanding what America plunged into between 1861-65, and on those fields a new America was reborn. People will argue that it took too long, or the rebirth didn’t actually happen on the battlefields, but that is nonsense. It did happen, on fields across America as the result of violent and often complex battles. Slavery was extinguished and the Union was preserved because combat created the political will and might necessary to exact such profound change and self-preservation. Nothing else short of combat could have led to such results.

    I appreciate the approach of the non-military historians who are trying to tell a myriad of other stories, and often ones too long untold, but to tell the story of the American Civil War without writing or discussing the very mechanisms of war seems almost pointless to me.

    Sadly, I see both sides now warring with each other. The battle crowd, if you will, believes the war story can only be told through that prism. The emerging social and political crowd, one that has been “emerging” for decades, often sees battle histories as a thing of the past.

    • Jimmy Dick Nov 23, 2015 @ 15:59

      Both histories are relevant and have their appropriate places. Historians can work in either or both areas as they see fit. To write pure military history is to limit one’s audience and vice versa for other histories. Writing history is a matter of selecting how deep one plans to drill into the topic of choice. Some are very deep with a short time span while others have different depths with wider time spans. It is all in the focus.

      Wars do not occur in vacuums. They have causes and outcomes. Often, other issues affect what occurs in getting to the battlefield while at the same what occurs on the battlefield affects what happens away from it. They are linked together. How a historian writes about the subject is really only a matter of their particular interpretation and focus.

      With that said, modern wars are fought by teams. No one general is the sole brilliant strategist as much as he is the man or woman who harnesses the abilities of the people around them (staff) in developing campaign and battle strategies. That same general is also the one who can balance the military side of things with the political side. Again, their staff is going to help them with that. The best modern generals since the Civil War often were the ones who saw the conflicts in the larger picture and acted accordingly.

      You can use WWII generals in this sense. Eisenhower was and is considered a great general because he could work with the larger picture. Patton on the other had was a battle leader, but that’s it. When it came to the bigger picture, Patton posed a problem. You can select other generals that fit that mold, but keep an eye on their ability to use their staffs. The general of today who does not read both types of histories is in my opinion not going to be capable of leading coalition forces in international conflicts.

  • Vince (Lancaster at War) Nov 23, 2015 @ 10:31

    I wonder if operationally-oriented Civil War historians could gain more legitimacy if they thought more broadly about the history of military and civilian operations. Limiting one’s scholarly focus to the Civil War seems almost arbitrarily specific and parochial. Why not study war as one type of management and become a business/management historian who occasionally studies the Civil War? Or why not also study other wars that are more relevant to today’s global challenges? Maybe the lack of interest among non-military historians in battle studies is that battle studies — while fascinating — generally fail to make the intellectual contribution that is expected of a professor? If I’m building a history department from scratch to prepare students to think critically about the world today and can only hire one military historian, why would I want a Civil War historian over someone who might study wars in the Philippines or Vietnam or the Middle East?

  • kew100 Nov 23, 2015 @ 9:48

    Many military historians and theorists study past wars in order to not “fight the last war” this “time.” Learning by doing, as suggested above in the Civil War, also includes learning by un-doing. I am all for learning. Also, I am all for not resorting to war when other means are available.

    Holding the entire world hostage to mutually assured destruction (as one military historian yelled at a conference in which I was involved (paraphrasing) “this is not intellectual history… MAD is not a concept. It Is A Fact!”) was one way to not fight a war, sort of. I was a technical advisor for systems, and found the outburst interesting but essential to consider how technology makes “fact.”

    Those who are professional military should do and learn from military history. Those that are amateurs should be involved but also know that they may only be amateurs.

    But, I am an amateur historian so take all with a grain of salt (or a pound.)

    • Tom Arliskas Nov 23, 2015 @ 11:11

      I agree with your statement– and fighting is the last resort after all has failed, or if attacked. MAD is a word used to describe people who are doing something insane, with no thought. The Ideal of a professional in anything, is that you know how and why, with a complete knowledge of the subject at hand. That said, Historians can spend their whole life studying one subject or one person, and still be unsure of their target when the letters, diaries, and books dry up. The best they can do is present what they have found. Expounding on what you, “think” someone would or would have done based on your research is pure conjecture– and without facts just an opinion. The best Military History is a collection of facts on a given subject woven by the author into a factual story of what happened that all can read and agree with. The Social aspects of a given military subject should be judged on the same grounds.

  • Tom Arliskas Nov 23, 2015 @ 5:52

    This new way of looking at Civil War History– “War is bad so we should never have such Wars again” has crept into the hearts and minds of Academia. Studying campaigns and Generals has given way to the social, political, and economic outcomes, rather than how a Battle was won or lost. What Academics do not realize, is that in War, winning or losing has major consequences for the losers and winners. There is also a creep of Academic elitism on History in general. That the Academics today, seek recognition and accolades on their work, not based on popular acceptance, like we had 40 years ago, but on the premise that they as Academics somehow own the historical narrative and where it will lead all of us. That today there is a hierarchy in place where those without a Masters Degree or PHD should have no say, or when they do comment, are ignored as quotes from a, “public historian.” In my opinion, this is a lose, lose for the Academics. That Civil War History studies from a social science perspective is commendable, ignoring how General US Grant, turned the tide at Shiloh on the Second day, or how Stonewall Jackson flanked the 11th Corp at Chancellorsville, etc. etc., or how the soldiers on both sides went head to head for four years killing each other again and again, is a subject for social scientists to research. Not in a 21st Century view, but in a 19th Century view. That is where it came from.

  • Rob Beckman Nov 22, 2015 @ 16:32

    Trying to present a narrative of the Civil War without an analysis and understanding of battlefield events is like trying to describe Picasso’s work without being allowed to mention angles. There was a complex interplay between battlefield events and the rest of society during the war. Political generals, technological developments, emancipation, and many other things all combined to produce battlefield outcomes. They are ALL part of the whole picture.

  • Sandi Saunders Nov 22, 2015 @ 15:00

    I can understand the difference he sees and have no doubt it exists but I am not sure that it is the “divide” he claims as much as possibly just the way people process what they learn. Some minds are more technical and maneuver minded and some are more philosophical and big picture. As a reader, the placement of brigades, use of weapons, brutal play by play, visceral carnage descriptions and the glee with which they are carried out in battles is less interesting in the scope of things than the outcome and the impact of it. So maybe the minds with the military bent interpret differently than the minds with a more comprehensive bent and each sees things that way and writes accordingly. Should that not be enough? I did not realize it was “a thing”.

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