Civil War Military Historians are Freaking Out
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 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 arestill 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).