Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out

Let’s imagine that you wake up one morning after many years of writing and speaking and teaching in your academic specialty. You have tenure, you have written a lot of books and articles and book reviews, and colleagues across the profession (and sometimes, complete strangers) know who you are. But you wake up one morning convinced that it has all been for nothing. Nobody cares anymore about your research topic or your methodologies or your arguments. You wake up and think, “Oh my god! My field is dying!”

So what do you do?

Well, you have some options.

Option one: curl up in a fetal position and weep

Pros: Cathartic. Don’t need to change out of your pajamas.

Cons: Puffy eyes.

Option two: write a manifesto defending the field

Pros: Cathartic. Possibly effective.

Cons: Will anybody read it?

Option three: throw shade

Pros: Making other people look bad always makes you look good!

Cons: It is possible that making other people look bad will make you look like an asshole.

A couple of years ago, Civil War military historians woke up and determined that their field was dying. Why then? This is unclear. Perhaps it was part of a larger anxiety about the “crisis in the humanities.” Perhaps it was because many military historians are nearing retirement, and are therefore worried about their legacies.

Whatever the reason, we know that some of them chose option two as a response because we now have in our possession not one but two (simultaneous!) special issues on military history in our journals of record: Civil War History, and The Journal of the Civil War Era.

Each issue contains a manifesto-as-introduction—one written by Earl Hess (CWH) and the other by Gary Gallagher and Katy Shively Meier (JCWE)—bemoaning the state of the field, and arguing that traditional military historians (those who write about “warfare and the relationship between military institutions and the societies from which they sprang,” according to Gallagher and Meier (490)) are in danger (as Bill Blair puts it in his editor’s note in JCWE), of “losing the Civil War.” This will not do, they argue. As Hess writes, “understanding the real battlefield of 1861-65 is essential to understanding everything else about the Civil War. The experience of organized military forces, their impact on the course of a war effort and on the course of their nation’s history, is fundamental to any true understanding of war” (393).

Now, let me say I am on board with this argument—except for those problematic terms, “real” and “true.” Of course the battlefield is important; of course logistics and strategy and the lived experiences of combat are important. They were important to Civil War Americans, and so they are important to those who study them. I don’t think I know any historians in the field who would disagree with these assertions.

But clearly Gallagher, Meier, and Hess believe that everyone (everyone!) in fact does disagree with these assertions. And they feel they are besieged—and from two directions, no less.

First, by amateur historians who write popular military histories (and the commercial presses that aid and abet them). Academic historians have always had a somewhat fraught relationship with the producers of “popular histories” who write both inside and outside the academy. Just ask any historian what she/he thinks about Jill Lepore or Doris Kearns Goodwin and you will see what I mean. Hess embraces this group a bit more than Gallagher and Meier do (perhaps because he sees himself as one of them), although they all view popular authors as competition for readers. If we don’t write more and better military histories, they argue, the amateurs will determine what most of the American public knows about the Civil War.

Although I am always for more and better histories, I’m skeptical about this prediction. Academic historians consult at National Park Service sites and serve as experts in the making of documentaries. They appear regularly on C-Span. There are also increasing numbers of academic historians writing for blogs and other online sites. And as Carole Emberton pointed out during the recent kerfuffle over what constitutes a “public intellectual,” “what the American public knows” about history is often conveyed in college classrooms—which are, the last time I checked, the domain of academic historians.

But Gallagher, Meier, and Hess save most of their ire for the second set of besiegers: social and cultural historians of the Civil War, whom they depict as (variously) misinformed about, condescending toward, terrified by, and dismissive of military history. These extraordinarily powerful individuals have taken funding and jobs away from traditional military historians, and they have discouraged graduate students from writing in the field. What proof do Gallagher, Meier, and Hess have for these complaints? Well, unfortunately, most of it is anecdotal, vague, or nonexistent.

Gallagher and Meier, for example, write that, “the few academic scholars who do work on such topics are under pressure to pull away from investigating the waging of the war itself” (489). The footnote for the paragraph references Allen Guelzo’s Lincoln Prize for Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. This is confusing at best. Almost all of Hess’ evidence for the dastardly deeds of social and cultural historians comes from 33 responses (some anonymous, some not) to a survey he sent out to 129 friends in the profession. That’s a pretty thin data set, produced from what appears to be a completely un-vetted questionnaire.

Such unfounded arguments start to read like conspiracy theories, which completely undermine any kind of reasonable points that Civil War military historians can make about the importance of their own approach.

But they carry on regardless and embrace option three, throwing shade at a number of historians doing work in various fields of Civil War history. Do you study war memory? Well, it’s clearly “a substitute for genuine history” (Sutherland in Hess, 391). Interested in the war’s “dark histories” of trauma? So presentist! Obvi. <eye roll> Doing research on guerrilla warfare in the border region? Don’t bother; such actions were so anomalous as to be inconsequential. Anyone who talks about emancipation without reference to military occupation is clearly an idiot. And don’t even begin to suggest that there was a “long Civil War” that extended beyond 1861 and 1865; this diverts attention from the war itself.

These attacks on colleagues are befuddling; both Gallagher and Hess have done research in aspects of the war beyond the battlefield, and Gallagher has even published pieces on the war in popular culture (gasp!). Their graduate students (and undergraduates who have gone on to other graduate programs) have produced important social and cultural studies of warfare.

Furthermore, the essays contained in these two special issues of Civil War History and The Journal of the Civil War Era are actually “war and society” or “war studies” pieces. All of them are excellent, and they prove that scholars are still researching and writing compelling studies in Civil War military history. It is these essays—and not the manifestos—that will encourage a rational conversation about the field, and how its shifts and changes have produced different kinds of knowledge about the past.

As we have daily proof on Twitter, dismissive snark is not critique. Can’t we argue for the strength and viability of our own field without denigrating the work of others? As Jennifer Weber argues in her response to Hess’s manifesto in Civil War History, “considering the war and its elements from multiple angles gives us a richer, more accurate, and interesting view of the past” (406). Yes. Yes, it does.

So the next time that Civil War military historians wake up and think, “Oh my god! My field is dying!” they should take:

Option four: figure that the field is moving in interesting new directions, partly due to your efforts. Roll over, and go back to sleep.

Pros: Don’t need to change out of your pajamas.

Cons: None.


38 thoughts on “Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out”

  1. Megan,
    I found your blog from a post on I must admit I do not have a solid grasp on your argument, but rest assured you have, in the very little I’ve read, strummed some chords in me.
    If we use a balance beam scale and place on one side all the studies of Battle statagies, Naval statagies, Weapons of war, statistical data of killed, wounded, MIA, histories of men born not to die, ad infantum, and place on the other side the knowledge of the common infantryman, his daily life, his sorrows, his personal effects, his worries about immenit death, which way will that balance beam fall.
    Now, replace each with their importance in relation to our lives and their ultimate sacrifice.

  2. I am not an academician but have read widely in the field of Civil War history – both military and “social” studies. I have an appreciation for any work written with insight, erudition, and style. I don’t seem to remember reading anything like that from any of the contributors to this blog, so feel the issue discussed here must be important only to a very small group of navel gazers envious of writers who have the skill to reach a wider audience.

    1. Well, all fights of this kind in academia are pretty “inside baseball”– but sometimes they do actually reveal larger, important developments in the field of history — changes in approach and methodology that directly reflect changes in society and what we value in our culture and the ways we think about the past. And given that I am the sole contributor to this blog, I’m afraid I have to object to your assertion that nothing on it is written with insight, erudition, or style.

  3. Good historical writing should provide what good journalism does-context. If you are writing about the Civil War from a cultural perspective you need some understanding of the armies, the status of the war at given points in time, and how war was waged. And writing about how the war was prosecuted should also involve and understanding of what was happening behind the lines. How did perceptions of the war by civilians affect recruitment, to what extent were civilian needs considered in allocating resources to the armies, were civilians turning against the war, how did armies interact with civilian populations, what affect did elected officials have on how the war was conducted? Context becomes a dividing line, and a fairly useful one, in considering how effective scholarship is.

    From a distance it appears the social historians are winning the battle for academia but losing the war at the checkout counter down at Barnes & Noble. And you might consider this question. Could a traditional military historian survive at Harvard? And if not, doesn’t the critique of Gallagher and others hold some merit? Going a step further, don’t cultural historians benefit from the interest in the Civil War military historians keep alive? Because, not to be flippant, without general interest in the military event that was in the Civil War, wouldn’t cultural studies of the era be about as interesting to the public as, say, cultural critiques of the 1880’s? Last time I looked those weren’t exactly flying off the shelves.

    Is it not unrealistic to view this discussion outside the context of cultural battles generally? History isn’t just history anymore. It is high ground that is fought over. The intensity of these debates is not, pardon the pun, academic. These issues would not be fought over with such passion if historical context were not politically useful.

    Of course you need both schools to provide the context necessary to understanding the war. But the question of whether the balance is tipping too far to one side is not just one of egos or agendas, it is a rational question worth asking. Because if you get the answer wrong, and we marginalize traditional military history in academia, it will have consequences to the long-term health of the field.

    At the same time, a key point overlooked is that some of the change in Civil War studies flows from the fact that cultural historians have the advantage of plowing in fields that have not been farmed out. A challenge for military historians is that it is harder and harder to find previously untapped manuscripts and letters from the period and maybe even harder to find original angles with which to view subjects so widely written upon.

    The answer, I’d suggest, is balance. Because if one side or the other were to truly win this debate the field itself will become much less relevant. And with many institutions abandoning social studies to focus on business and technology with so much fervor (and funding) can historians really afford to engage in such debates?

  4. I guess I will offer up here my “The First Time I Met Gary Gallagher Story”
    and hope that I do not live to regret doing it. The first time I met Gary Gallagher was when he was on a panel at the OAH at Toronto (maybe 2000?)
    and I went to the panel because it had and intriguing title, something like,
    “What do Military Historians Have to Say to Cultural Historians and Vice Versa.” I made the mistake of sitting in the front row. And although there were five historians on the panel, most of it consisted of Gary Gallagher making the claim that while military historians have always considered cultural factors, recent works in gender studies (and he did use that word, not cultural studies) have entirely failed to consider the military history of the war. Gary Gallagher goes on saying something more or less like this over and over again. My feeling at the time and it is still my feeling is that the last thing in the world that military historians really want is for “cultural/social” historians to seriously consider military history. They may say that. They may even think they mean it, but the closer anyone gets the more they break out in a rash. And why would that be? Because Pete Carmichael is right on about Gary when he says that Gary has considered culture and society, he has.
    It’s really not about that. It’s about privileging a location, men on the battlefield, and explaining everything else in terms of that location. Moreover, its about defining the nature of that relationship as being one of honor and protection. Nothing else will do.
    I walked out of that session thinking that Gary had engaged in a bit of a slide,
    that is it is accurate to say that military historians like Gary have considered cultural history, but it was not and still is for the most part not accurate to say that military historians have considered gender. Not considering gender and therefore to be the (unnamed) center around all else revolves, is in fact the core of Gallagher’s position. So I walked out thinking that, but I also walked out thinking that Gallagher was right about “gender” historians. Historians of women in particular had not considered the military history of the war. He was right about that and I dedicated myself to trying to change that, whether or not I thought military historians were likely to change as well. I went to the National Archives. I discovered that the experts there knew virtually nothing about the vast civilian records. I freaked out at how difficult military history is to do. And by that I mean what level of expertise it requires to understand how the military records are organized. I wished I had received some formal training. But I was also shocked, truly, at the narrow swath of military records anyone has considered. So I don’t know, how do we define a military historian? Will working in the military records do???? Somehow I doubt it.

    1. LeeAnn, I can’t help but think of a review essay by Dan Sutherland almost 20 years ago in which he bashed two works, no need to hide it, your and my books. He seemed unable to grasp that I was looking at a the experience of a community over 35 years, and the Civil War was only four years of that period. He seemed unable to grasp that you were looking at gender roles and understandings in a Southern city challenged by a terrible war and suffering. Almost 20 years later, I still don’t think they understand.

  5. I’ve been re-reading Theodore Hamerow’s “Reflections on History and Historians,” which was written in the late 80s. With a few changes, everything he says about the profession is as true today as it was then. Historians have always worked hard to justify their existence. I have no anxiety about the disappearance of military history, however you define it.

  6. I’m relatively new to writing about the Civil War, but have taught a Civil War course for many years. I read the Hess piece and concluded that it was not a helpful summary of the current state of affairs. I have not read the Gallagher/Meier piece. The trends I see in Civil War scholarship are similar to the trends I see generally in academic work. There is less emphasis on traditional topics (like political history) and more emphasis on social and cultural history. Historians simply pay more attention to the influence gender, race, memory, and the environment, to name a few. Students in my graduate seminars routinely conclude that the best books they read combine approaches from various perspectives. Those who argue for the death of “traditional” military history should be thankful for the ways in which new approaches have invigorated scholarship and have attracted new readers.

  7. I think there has been a general loss of interest in the Civil War. I am not sure why, but it does not resonate with the public as it did.

  8. Thanks for sharing.
    I think I know where you’re coming from (although, in fact, I do not aspire to staying in my pajamas).
    The only tone in the whining that I’d advocate amplifying is in regard to political-economy (vs. “substantive”/cumulation of knowledge) indicators of the health of a field. Among the ways a field weakens is when there are fewer opportunities to teach or be a student in a class on the subject or to find support for research (e.g., journals, grants, library/archival positions, etc.) These issues are important not only for the prestige and salaries of the current wave of academic fashionistas but also for the infrastructure that enables the next wave.
    BTW, the field in which you got your Ph.D. (though not the one in which you identify for this piece) seems to be suffering something like the fate that concerns me — going the way of the Shakers (great on “substance”; not-so-great on sustainability).

  9. I’ve already made various comments in various places on FB and in Kevin Levin’s blog about what I thought of both pieces, so I think it’d be a mistake to paste that stuff in here. But more directly to this post, I quite frankly find the description of larger professional dynamics at odds with my own personal experience. I can think of actual confrontations between myself and non-military historians over first principles, and I don’t even do “traditional” military history as defined by many academics (battles and leaders–though *not* the definition given in either Hess or Meier/Gallagher).

    Considering that the room was packed, I have to believe that some readers of this were at the infamous SHA military history fiasco I organized in 06 (Atlanta?). I know Brooks Simpson’s position is that catastrophe occurred simply because of the commentator’s adversarial response (and in all due honesty, I wonder if things would have gone much differently if the commentator hadn’t been absent due to bad weather and there had been an actual exchange of ideas), but what I think Brooks *doesn’t* know is that the SHA program committee essentially strongarmed me (at the time a new assistant professor) into placing a hostile commentator of *their* choice on a panel *I* organized–without bothering to warn me that this would be an adversarial setting. I never got any sort of explanation for this before or after the event, but just saw the result–a commentator who seemed to dismiss my own work with such contempt that it wasn’t really worthy of comment, and more seriously, who completely misread Mark Grimsley’s paper. Meanwhile, Keith Bohannon’s piece (probably the best of the three) got almost no coverage in the ensuing firestorm. It was never explained to me what exactly was the rationale for this arrangement–if it was just me, that might have made sense, but everyone else on the panel was established enough to be credible–but if it sounds like I feel aggrieved about the whole episode, … well, if I see smoke, I generally assume there’s also fire. Nevertheless, in the end, that disaster was… pretty much irrelevant to my career, and I can’t even remember who was on the program committee (if I ever have grad students, it’ll make for a great story–I still remember Mike Holt’s tale of the infamous “Kousser you thug!” panel), but I do sometimes wonder how that episode would have looked to a graduate student *without* a tenure track job who had any interest in military history. I’m sorry to say I missed the infamous 2013 SHA panel due to family commitments.

    Furthermore, when I recently read a speech by H. R. McMaster, a senior army general who’s written a historical monograph, decry the association of military history with jingoism, I wondered once again if this was an overstatement; I think *every* academic specialty thinks its under siege–such is the romance associated with life on the margins nowadays. Then I read a comment like this on Facebook: “Whether academic or non-academic, military historians tend to write heroic narratives that are rarely critical of the act of war-making itself. Of course, they cast judgements on decisions made by particular leaders and particular moments, but as like those commanders at the time, they see war as their business. And, in many cases, I think they love it.” Doesn’t this actually support Guelzo’s point that military history in some quarters of the profession has a status akin to pornography?

    On another occasion, a historian not in our field accused a distinguished military historian of outright misogny right in front of me, despite knowing we were friends–the same scholar whose praise led me to Isabel Hull’s fine work, and who has supported multiple junior scholars regardless of gender. But since he self identified as a military historian, I guess we all know what that means. *wink* *wink* Just like how some military historians sacrifice a newborn lamb to Ares every 13th New Moon. There have been various other episodes when I get the vague feeling scholars are… surprised to find out that even though I call myself a military historian, I don’t just do one-damned-thing-after-another battle narrative.

    On a more positive note, I’ve had a pretty adversarial confrontation in my own department over military history–and I actually learned something from it–after the smoke cleared. It probably helped that we were colleagues–or maybe we just both had thick enough skin. So I for one would find it refreshing to have more frank discussions of first principles and methodological difference, even if it leads to conflict–assuming no one gets sucker punched. But there are unavoidable differences in method and orientation, and the reality is that everytime a historian makes a choice, he or she is implicitly prioritizing some category over another, for whatever reason. Hence all the heartburn on the internet about James McPherson’s reading recommendations.

    Furthermore, I personally think that what military history of the American Civil War needs *most* is to actually be better embedded in the larger context of nineteenth-century armed conflict. Ken Noe’s comments in the Hess piece were for me very perceptive on this issue–but the only practical way to do this is to start with previously established analytical tools to look at the “transnational” phenomena of war and state violence in the 19th century–the type of stuff associated with… well, military history writ large, which has its own historiographical traditions and problems. Everyone needs a starting point; otherwise trying to look at every nineteenth century war even in just Europe and North America will be overwhelming. But if the best analytical grounding many scholars have in armed conflict writ large is *maybe* the military primer in Hattaway and Jones *How the North Won*, it’s hard to see how the field can readily advance in that sort of wider direction–however concise and valuable that little primer really is.

    1. “’Whether academic or non-academic, military historians tend to write heroic narratives that are rarely critical of the act of war-making itself. Of course, they cast judgements on decisions made by particular leaders and particular moments, but as like those commanders at the time, they see war as their business. And, in many cases, I think they love it.’ Doesn’t this actually support Guelzo’s point that military history in some quarters of the profession has a status akin to pornography?”

      Since you’re quoting me here, I’ll chime in. I’m not familiar with the Guelzo quote and am unsure of the exact context, but in general, I do think we tend to love what we write about. I’ve written about this in a review of a bio of John Bell Hood last year ( This is true for non-military historians as well; otherwise how could we devote so much of our lives to it? That said, I also think military history has earned a reputation for glorifying war and soldiering even when describing how horrible it can be, and I believe that reputation is well-deserved. It’s the basis of Drew Faust’s piece on why we love the war. As Hemingway said, war is the best topic of all. I happen to agree, but not for the same reasons.

      As for misogyny, the fact that many more women today write military history is not necessarily indicative that the field itself has moved away from older conceptual or narrative trends, just as the presence of more women in executive positions means that the corporate world is no longer sexist. A woman could write a “misogynistic” history just as well as any man.

      Same goes for race. Which brings me to my main problem with the Gallagher/Meier essay (I haven’t read Hess’s yet). Their assertion that historians of emancipation do not recognize the vital role the military played in destroying slavery is a straw man. It seems that any mention of “self emancipation” makes the authors’ heads spin because it detracts from their belief that “[t]he United States Army functioned as a revolution agent for freedom” (496). To suggest otherwise is tantamount to some kind of military history heresy. So, it’s not really that historians of emancipation like yours truly IGNORE the military or lack a basic understanding of military operations but that they/we CRITIQUE the military as a vehicle for freedom. So basically what I see happening is this: a neo-liberal erasure of race and racial politics in the guise of a methodological straw man. And you can quote me on that.

      1. It is a military historian, Mark Grimsley, who has actually used the term “harlequin romance novel,” I believe, to criticize some of the excesses of the battle study genre, which certainly can romanticize war. But moral obtuseness is a vice shared by historians of all stripes. I think it’s true that military historians probably believe that the suffering in war can potentially have more purpose and meaning than, say, a committed pacifist, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a recognition of cost. Or that the relationship between military historians and their subjects can be marked by a deep sense of ambivalence. That’s also true of many other fields. After all, I do not think historians of slavery “love” their subject.

        The reality is that the best military historians, like the soldiers they study, have a complicated relationship with war and violence, and it’s dangerous to make broad brush claims. In my own book, I end with Emory Upton’s suicide, and use his case as a window into how the supposed success of the U.S. Army’s antebellum program of professionalization meant ironically enough that perhaps the most talented young officer to come of age in the war ended up more bewildered by victory than conflict (although no one really knows what drove Upton to take his own life). Regardless, unless it’s a moral necessity to preface every work of military history with an absolutist claim that war is inherently evil in any and all circumstances (something I do *not* believe), I’m not sure I would characterize my ending vignette as terribly romantic. Would someone describe John Keegan’s _Face of Battle_ as glorifying of war? Really?–his treatment of the Somme, which comes across in large part as a scathing indictment of human folly? And if I recall correctly, Gallagher ended _Confederate War_ with a comment on the bitter irony that so much Confederate commitment and sacrifice was expended for the sake of as execrable a cause as a polity explicitly founded to protect and further slavery. As I understand it, for decades, some historians of the Wehrmacht tried to separate the German Army’s operational effectiveness (which require the presence of certain martial “virtues”–technical proficiency, perseverance, willingness to self-sacrifice, etc.) from the taint of Nazism. In the end, that division (comforting as it was U.S. Army officers trying to learn from their former foes during the Cold War) collapsed due to the work of military historians, and it turned out that all those martial virtues could indeed coexist with Nazism. An unpleasant lesson, but one hardly unfamiliar to serious scholars in the field–and one could even argue that Thucydides thousands of years ago set out deliberately to write a deliberately un-heroic account of war by focusing on structural and impersonal causes for human behavior, in opposition to Homer (whose own relationship to war itself was more complicated than the historian let on).

      2. “I do think we tend to love what we write about…This is true for non-military historians as well; otherwise how could we devote so much of our lives to it?”

        This may be true, but respectfully, you’re stealing more than a few bases by noting this, and then immediately moving to the conclusion that “love” or “interest” is the same as general and unquestioning boosterism for fighting more wars. Historians of slavery and Holocaust historians are not writing because they love slavery or the Holocaust and want more of it. They’re writing about these topics because they hold an intellectual interest for them, and in part with an eye towards fixing historical (and historiographical) injustices and in part with an eye towards implications of their topics in the present. I don’t think military historians are much different. I enjoy working on my topic on its own terms and I want to correct both the historical and historiographical record, but I also want to do whatever I can provide a better modern understanding of certain types of conflict that I think, to our detriment and the loss of lives, we don’t understand as well as we should.

        I would suggest that most academic military historians – like most academics – opposed the war in Iraq. But they’re also realists. The world is how it is. War and other types of armed conflict have always been – and will continue to be – a fundamental part of the human condition, despite our best efforts to eradicate it. It’s when you ignore it that you get the biggest blunders and the worst atrocities, committed (or at least allowed to happen) by people who have no historical understanding of war and think such problems can be ignored, or that war can either be done cleanly or that you can kill your way to some kind of utopia.

        More importantly, there aren’t many (any?) academic military historians out there who still do straight battle narrative, with the possible exception of those in or working for the military who have to somehow figure out a way to gather historical “lessons learned,” sometimes with some success and sometimes futilely. Even those academic military historians who come closest to pure operational military history are still focused less on the battle narrative and more on the way social, cultural, economic and other factors influence the way an army is built and fights. Robert Citino’s excellent books on German warfare are a perfect example of this, emphasizing the way social class structure, economic factors, and cultural influences have shaped the operational approach the Germans have taken, by necessity in their mind, to waging war. Wayne Hsieh gives some examples of others who use the same influences.

        Military historians have, in general, done more than their share of building intellectual bridges with colleagues in other fields. Lots of folks on the other side have reciprocated, but just as often someone will come from the other shore and strap dynamite to the support columns underneath the bridge.

        “As for misogyny, the fact that many more women today write military history is not necessarily indicative that the field itself has moved away from older conceptual or narrative trends…A woman could write a “misogynistic” history just as well as any man.”

        You lost me here. Narrative or traditional operational history is misogynistic? Literally, a mere descriptive account of battles is tantamount to, using Merriam Webster’s definition, “having or showing a hatred and distrust of women?” Talk about reinforcing stereotypical gender norms!

  10. Megan: We are in close alignment when it comes to all things, especially fashion and that Peeps are one of the last delicacies left in the modern world! I don’t think that Katie and Dr. Gallagher are denigrating anyone. Their assertion that traditional military history has been left behind is extreme, but we need to acknowledge that many cultural approaches fall short because they haven’t done their spade work in traditional military history. I will toss out one example: I stressed the issue of a militarized manliness that animated men on battle, making the rhetoric “death before dishonor” akin to a suicide note. My analysis in the Last Generation is way off the war because I didn’t consider the tactical realities of rifled weaponry and artillery. I almost suggest that these men were on a jihad. If I had consider tactics and training manuals, I would have seen that the ground truths of war and the cultural ideals of manhood were in synch Even in the most atrocious frontal assaults, bold, individual leadership mattered and Civil War soldiers were not mastered by culture alone, but by lessons learned from training in experience, knowing that bravery, pragmatism, and honor was part of a spontaneous philosophy of survival. I love F. Clarke’s War Stories. I gave it a glowing review. But I missed how her very smart analysis of sentimentalism was far removed from military history, If she had made the connections, War Stories wold have been impregnable to the critics. The book misses the ways that tactical realities and coercion fractured sentimental beliefs.

    My final question for you: Wy not identify yourself on your blog as a historian of the Civil War era and a public intellectual?

    Let me close with this: Your talks at CWI follow the scholarly trajectory of Hess, Faust, Clinton, Mitchell, Sutherland, Gallagher, Glatthaar, Rable, Mc{Pherson, and Simpson(I am sure I have left many important people out of that generational cohort) . And the popularity of your talks at CWI attest to how popular audiences have a more capacious view of the Civil War Era.

    I am pretty optimistic, and I admit that I am in a unique situation at Gettysburg College. I see such incredible enthusiasm for our field among young people, and this summer 23 of our kids will be at various Civil War sites in the NPS. They are excited about what we write in the classroom, and they get energized by their experiences in the field. See this short clip This will make you love life! Although Megan you have never struggled on this front.

    1. Pete, where I disagree with you here is in the argument that cultural histories must do “spade work” in traditional military history to tell us something useful about the war. If someone claims to be making a larger argument about the battlefield or armies or military institutions, then yes, this spade work is a requirement. But if one’s ultimate argument is about politics, or visual culture, or gendered expectations of suffering, does one really need to nail that down to logistics or military institutional hierarchy or a single troop movement at Gettysburg to make it a valuable insight? I don’t think so.

      And I’m amazed that you think Gallagher, Meier, and Hess are not denigrating anyone in their essays. They explicitly go after scholars working in multiple social and cultural fields (without naming names, of course) and dismiss their work as misleading and faddish and therefore, unimportant. How is that not denigration?

      And on the matter of self-identification: now that I am untethered from the academy I don’t feel bound to define myself as working in a specific chronological period or subject area — although for professors and graduate students it is still important to do so (which goes to Paul’s and Aaron’s comments, below). I do describe myself as a “writer, historian, and cultural critic”– descriptors which pretty much cover all of my interest areas.

      There have been conversations on FB regarding how one defines one’s field (and through it, one’s identity), and Amy Wood has suggested that a BuzzFeed quiz would be helpful. I think I have found my next project …

    2. Hi Pete, thanks for the plug! For the record, although my work is far removed from traditional military history, I take umbrage at the tone of a debate that assumes that social/culture/political/intellectual historians like myself are somehow ignorant of or dismissive toward military history (and I’m with Megan here: I don’t see how you could read either piece in any other way). Like most historians these days, I’m a magpie: i use anything and everything i can find to explore my topic. In writing a chapter on an officer in a Mass cavalry regt, for instance it’s not as if I just sat down and read his letters. Like any good historian, I went to the OR and NARA; i read every work that covered this regiment, that examined the battles in which he participated, or that dealt with the cavalry more broadly. I spent long hours piecing together every element of his wartime experience and the experiences of his regiment (and read a lot of excessively boring regimental histories and narrowly framed military history in the process). I’ve read and continue to read as much as i can on military logistics and the organization of the military, in particular–topics that i find fascinating. All of this reading informs what i write, but I don’t see why everyone needs to include battles in their histories. Seriously, who are all these mythical scholars who write about the Civil War while ignoring the fact that it’s a WAR? I can think of few. But i can think of dozens and dozens of ground-breaking books that have come out in the past few years that have interpreted this conflict in ways that have made it newly relevant to people outside the still somewhat insular field of CW studies–something that’s been made possible by the wealth of comparative, long-term, transnational, and non-traditional studies. I think there’s more to celebrate here than lament.

  11. Will the upcoming cage match pitting military vs. cultural historians be a pay-per-view or available on basic cable???

  12. Fantastic post, even without cat videos.

    I would raise an issue with the field of Civil War history coming from the other direction–that of someone who works in the 19th century more broadly, and at an institution that funds research projects in American history and culture from 1600 to 1900. Gallagher and Meier’s comment that military historians should be concerned with “warfare and the relationship between military institutions and the societies from which they sprang,” combined with Hess’ remark that Civil War historians should concern themselves with “the real battlefield of 1861-65” points to the more general trend of insularity among many scholars who study the Civil War. I don’t know of any subject area or chronological period in American historical studies where it is widely accepted–and, in fact, expected–that one would restrict one’s scholarship to a single five-year period.

    Pete Carmichael’s point is well taken, but his “big tent” is still too small. Instead of just calling everybody Civil War historians, why shouldn’t everybody be 19th-century Americanists with an interest in the Civil War? If we should try to understand the societies from which our military institutions sprang, viewing the work of Civil War history as a continuation of, rather than separate from, the larger field of early republic and antebellum history might not only help blur some of these divisions between camps, it would result in better works of history.

    1. And I would like to add that the insularity goes both ways–scholars who work in the decades around the Civil War don’t engage enough with the work of Civil War historians, either.

    2. I agree entirely, Paul. I consider myself a 19th century historian who focused on the Civil War era. When talking about the military history of the era I have to engage with a 19th century military context – tactics, weaponry, leadership styles, command structures, regimental organization, logistics, etc. None of what military historians of the Civil War do make any sense when removed from a larger 19th century history, even if just a 19th century military history. But pulling the lens back makes all the broader questions fit together more appropriately. The Civil War becomes the most acute crisis in 19th century America – it is a military phenomenon, a political event, a social revolution, an ideological struggle, a moment of cultural conflict, etc. but always a 19th century event.

  13. After reading both “manifestos,” myriad reactions to them on social media, chatting with several people at SHA, and then reading Megan’s response here, it seems virtually all of this bad blood — or at least the illusion of it — stems from the issue of what constitutes the “true” or “real” war moving forward. Perhaps more accurately, it stems from perceived struggles over *who* gets to ultimately decide. As a number of people much smarter than myself have already shown, though, the answer is that *no one* gets to decide; and, to borrow a metaphor from one of them, the train is already speeding down the tracks, so anyone still caught up in useless in-fighting probably got left at the station. It is interesting, though, how many military historians have disagreed with the necessity of the “manifestos” in the first place (as Peter Carmichael does above) and this leads to me question whether or not a very small minority within military history have made the sub-field synonymous with features that do not accurately represent its majority? (I.e., has “traditional military history” simply become a code word for a very conservative, restrictive definition of what’s allowed to be considered “the real Civil War?”) I genuinely hope not.

  14. Dear Historista: Your data base supporting your title that military historians are freaking out is rather thin—based on three author/two articles :) I realize that in the blog world loves amped up titles, since they elemental to getting quality air time. Nonetheless, the title points to how we energize an empty debate, one that is of our own making. We keep categorizing each other and the categories don’t hold up anymore.

    I think there is a sane and easy solution to all of this. Let’s jettison all descriptions of Civil War historians as either military, cultural, social, political, gender or whatever.We are all in the same intellectual mash pit, and when the chest bumping begins I can’t tell if I am up against someone who does gender, politics, or race because we are, for the most part, trained in all of these fields. Our styles might be different but we are grinding to the same music (there must be a better word than grinding here) But the point is that our field–as Megan points out–is wonderfully diverse and I think Hess, Katie, and Dr. Gallagher don’t want us to lose sight of the military angle. We haven’t and I don’t know why they think that is the case.

    Civil War history owes a great deal to Hess and Gallagher for bridging the divide between military and social/cultural history. Although Katie is not “senior” in our field, her book exemplifies the very best of how we can merge a range of interests and methodologies. But back to Gallagher.–the last time I checked the Union War utilizes a range of source materials, including visual and material culture. And Dr. Gallagher’s Civil War America series has some of the very best work in Civil War history that has a cultural/social angle (Alice Fahs is just one of many examples). I don’t believe that Dr. Gallagher was asleep at the wheel when books of the cultural/social ilk were published in his series at UNC . Seve Cushman’s new book explores the aesthetic of writing was just released—-further proof that Gallagher can’t be boxed in as a military historian as Eric Foner wrote in his review of Union War in the NYT. I find it troubling that Foner would make such a classification when the Union War is far from a work of traditional military history. What about Dr. Gallagher’s book on Civil War art and film and popular culture.?I have no idea why Foner characterized Gallagher in this way, but is certainly is misleading, creating imaginary walls that lead to pointless feuding and dirty turf wars in our academic clan.

    Dr. Gallagher doesn’t need me to defend him, but I think Megan’s final suggestion is flippant— I usually love Megan when she is flippant—but in this instance it blunts her fine observations and obscures the incredible achievements that have happened in our field over the last twenty years. My recommendation: We are all Civil War Historians and let us move forward as a rag tag army, doing good and creative work (as Megan suggests). Above all else we need to zip it when it comes to our precious self-definitions. it reveals little,it is self indulgent, and almost always creates battles lines. There is no crisis! Let’s just write our damn books that the public will likely ignore. We can find solace in our academic mash pits at the Southern and the Society of Civil War Historians!

    1. Pete, I don’t think we’re disagreeing on much here.

      My final suggestion, though admittedly flippant, actually acknowledges two things that you point out: that military historians have done great work and have influenced a range of approaches in Civil War studies; and that there’s not really a crisis here at all.

      I don’t like pointless feuds either, but I won’t just stand by and say nothing as leaders in the field denigrate the important and meaningful research produced by my (and their) colleagues.

      And, finally, I will readily confess to loving amped up titles. And if I could have gotten away with imbedding a cat video in this post, I would have.

  15. I have no idea what a Civil War military historian is or whether I’m one of them. I will note that at times this exercise in culture of scholarship wars is more about people and their attitudes about what they do than it is about people and the work they do. With that said, I now roll over and return to my slumbers.

  16. Nicely done! Although I am very happy that I attended the 2013 SHA panel in the St. Louis courthouse (and heard excellent papers on Dred Scott), I believe that is the panel that ran concurrent to the military history panel that got rather snarky. Part of me wishes I had been able to be two places at once to see the showdown that occurred there, which no doubt inspired these special issues.

    As it is finals week I have yet to read either special issue (full disclosure) but I proudly identify as a social historian who teaches military history in my Civil War course, but who doesn’t pander to those who want to ignore all the many, many other important things occurring between 1861-1865. I break most of their “rules,” I’m afraid. And, I find it troublesome that diversity (including attention to race, gender, etc.) appears to be part of what they are arguing against, unless I am mistaken. Anything that takes women and non-combatant African Americans and Native Americans out of the picture is not compatible with my worldview and/or teaching style.

    1. Hi Kristen – I think many military historians would counter your claim by saying it’s not that they want to remove the role of women, blacks, Native Americans, etc. from history, but that they’re pushing back against what they perceive (with some justification, I think) as an effort to *only* (or at least overwhelmingly) focus on race, class, and gender with regards to historical change. Sometimes, when a group pushes back against something they perceive to be both the dominant trend and perhaps excessive they can fall into the trap of becoming reactionary in their opposition. But the underlying inclination to push back is not without merit. Let me try to explain.

      I am not a Civil War historian. I do the American Revolution. Part of my work focuses on political violence and population control as means to prevent the British from leveraging loyalist support in the southern provinces/states. For those who argue military history is old, stale, and doesn’t offer any new answers, the work I am doing runs counter to centuries of historiography – from Cornwallis himself through the military historians of the Vietnam era and up until only recently – that claims the British failed because they based their strategy on exaggerated reports of loyalist strength in the South. Instead, I’m arguing (most of) the British officers and politicians simply did not understand how to draw out the Loyalists – not because they did not focus enough on hearts and minds or because they weren’t punitive enough, but because they didn’t understand the Whig strategy that often physically prevented the Loyalists from supporting the British. And again, this wasn’t because the Whigs just murdered every Loyalist they could find, as many historians have argued, but devised a strategy based much more on control via incentive and disincentive than on destruction. So if I were to tell some historians (not saying you’re one of them) that I’m working on “the American Revolution in the South” I’d probably get an eye roll and a “that’s been done to death…Nathanael Greene, Francis Marion, we get it.” But in my work I’m trying to argue counter to three dominant arguments on the subject – 1. The strength of Loyalists, 2. The British failed because they weren’t conciliatory enough or because they were too nice, 3. The Whigs won simply because they killed Loyalists wherever they could).

      Now obviously, slavery plays an important role in this story. The slave population in the South, particularly SC – overwhelmed the white population. There was not surprisingly a constant concern about their own security against potential insurrections. The Whigs were familiar with population control from decades of perfecting slave patrols. But to read some non-military histories of the Revolutionary South, you would think every. single. thing. the Whigs did in NC, SC, and GA during the war was just to keep slave populations from revolting. Implicit in this argument is that the Whigs were too busy worrying about their slaves to worry about the British, and success against the British was just a happy accident, a byproduct of the real objective to prevent slave insurrection.

      During the Summer of 1775, as the Whigs were overthrowing provincial governments from outside and inside the government, propaganda about the British arming slaves proved to be a useful tool to turn some potential loyalists against the British and increase control over the population. But when you look at the letters of the revolutionary leadership in these provinces, up until early July – even as they’re stirring up resentment against the British for arming slaves – the leadership is consistently writing privately about how there’s really no threat of slave insurrection at the moment. They arrested several slaves, but eventually released them, and for the one or two they didn’t release they had nothing to charge them with. Yes, they still maintained patrols and militia drill, but that was business as usual.

      That all changed in early July when the leadership started talking more about the threat posed by slaves and free blacks. Most non-military historians attribute this change in tone to a minor threat of insurrection in the country away from any of the cities that was nevertheless thwarted. The slave who was accused of leading the alleged plot was hanged, but no more was spoken about it after that. In fact, one of the leading Whigs offered the white man who was alleged to have preached insurrection to the slaves a job on his plantations in Georgia. He remained in that employment for at least the next several years, became a trusted employee, and worked in close proximity with the owner’s slaves. It’s a stretch to therefore claim this minor threat was responsible for the Whig leadership suddenly panicking beginning in July 1775 about the threat posed by slaves.

      What was much more likely the cause was actually a military-strategic consideration. In the first days of July the British had taken the most skilled harbor pilot in Charleston on board one of their ships to Boston, where General Gage was believed to be planning an expedition to the South. Most of the best harbor pilots were slaves or free blacks, and their services would be essential to get the British ships within firing range of the town since the Harbor was notoriously difficult to navigate (the failed 1776 attack on Charleston failed in part because three British ships ran aground on an uncharted shoal). So it was a military consideration, rather than any greater fear than usual about slave insurrection, that influenced the trials and executions of several black men that summer and severe restrictions on the movement of harbor and river pilots (most of whom were black) throughout the southern provinces. Too many non-military histories, however, just assume this sudden crackdown – after several months of repeated claims by leadership that there was no cause for concern about slave insurrection – was only the result of the same long-standing fears that had always existed.

      Of course, the role the Whig leadership played in the southern provinces in creating and implementing the strategy that prevented the British from leveraging Loyalist support also problematizes the growing argument that so much of the action in the South was the result “crowds” and “mobs” and unruly lower classes and so forth. While these actors had a significant role in the growing protest movement up until about 1774, once the war started in early 1775 the Whig leadership (all elites) took firm control of the revolutionary movement and the implementation of its strategy. That’s for another time though, but suffice to say all of the “crowd actions,” the riots and mob violence, the tarring and feathering, etc. that took place in the southern provinces in the first years of the war was heavily scripted and carried out by the same individuals who conducted nearly every such action of import to ensure strict adherence to their strategy to overthrow British rule.

      I completely understand that for a long time history excluded entire groups of people, and therefore presented a false picture of what happened. Nevertheless, when the lens with which one approaches wartime history overwhelmingly emphasizes race, class, gender, etc, and acts like the war itself was a sideshow the result is probably going to be equally flawed. You’re likely to get a much better picture by using a balanced approach – understanding the factors that influenced people while also recognizing that much of their action in wartime is actually driven by their efforts to figure out how to win the war and deal with the most common threat in a war – the enemy. To take that further, rather than treat the war as a black box or a peripheral event, one needs to recognize that the ways in which a war is fought influences events beyond the war itself. That is why rigorous operational history is so important as well. It’s also why it’s necessary to give war and military action their due for shaping events as they have.

      As I said, there will always be reactionaries, but I generally find military historians are able to strike a reasonable balance between both those factors that influence people in war and the events shaped by battle. Yet it is military historians who are constantly told either that their work is irrelevant or that they “need to meet their colleagues in other fields halfway.” In my experience, most military historians make this effort in good faith, while their colleagues in other fields dismiss them as irrelevant or tell them to their faces that they’re perpetuating the patriarchy or enablers for the military industrial complex or whatever.

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