Discussion Are "Civil War Military Historians Freaking Out"?

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Pat Young

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Over on the academic history blogs, there has been a lot of discussion, sometimes contentious, over two articles appearing in Journal of the Civil War Era and Civil War History. The articles, by three prominent military historians, are being described as a counterattack by "military historians" on "social historians." (My use of quotation marks reflect the way these subfields are being described among the professors and teachers involved.) Megan Kate Nelson of Harvard has responded to the military historians with a blog post titled: "Military Historians Are Freaking Out."

I will look a little bit at the charges and responses in the blogs and in academic social media, but first I want to look at little at what the two articles in learned journals that started this whole thing say. Here is what Earl Hess wrote in the journal Civil War History:

In addition, despite the appearance of some top-quality memory studies by Carol Reardon, Brian Craig Miller, and Kevin Levin, a number of examples of this genre exhibit poor scholarship. Unfortunately, it is easy for a graduate student to research postwar newspapers and throw together a pale imitation of David Blight’s book. The most serious weakness is that the author, when writing the obligatory chapter or two about the war as background to their main effort, cannot get the larger story right. When encountering such manuscripts while reviewing them for university presses, I often compile a list of factual errors about the conflict, in addition to many conceptual errors about their subject. Ironically, many of these memory studies are focused on individuals whose sole claim to fame is that they commanded large armies in the field. Yet, the authors of these studies know next to nothing about what the general in question actually did during the war, and they know even less about how traditional military historians have interpreted his career. (pp. 391-92)


[Excerpt from http://cwmemory.com/2014/12/07/what-do-we-need-to-know-about-traditional-military-history/ Civil War Memory]

I am interested in what folks here think. We are the consumers of a lot of Civil War scholarship, everyone here probably spends a lot of time and money on Civil War books. Does Hess have a point?

I'll bring you more on this shortly.
 

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Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier wrote in the Journal of Civil War History that military historians are pushed aside at academic conventions:

The increasing marginality of traditional military history is nowhere more apparent than at the biennial meetings of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH). Any graduate student or untenured professor contemplating a conventional military topic would find little to encourage such a choice among the ninety-one panels and roundtables at the conference in Philadelphia (2008), Richmond (2010), Lexington (2012) and Baltimore (2014). The 2008 meeting included a roundtable on “The State of Civil War Military History”–added when the dearth of military topics became apparent–and a panel titled “The Influence of Military Operations on Politics and Policy in the Trans-Mississippi.” Beyond those two, not a single session at any of the meetings focused on what could be termed operational history, strategic or tactical thinking or execution, military leadership, or the myriad connections between those areas of investigation and nonmilitary dimensions of the conflict. Wartime debates about regional allocation of military resources, changes in the high commands, tactical choices on the battlefields such as Shiloh and Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, and other related subjects often produced swings of political momentum and otherwise affected civilian attitudes and expectations. In other words, they figured prominently in more than purely military dimensions of the war. Programs at the SCWH conferences suggest otherwise, something all the more striking because the society began in the late 1980s in large part as a response to the absence of military-related panels at the annual meetings of the Southern Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. (Gallagher and Meier, pp. 489-90)

Source: http://cwmemory.com/2014/12/11/in-defense-of-hess-gallagher-and-meier/ Civil War Memory
 
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Daniel Sutherland, President Elect of the Society of Civil War Historians, is quoted in the Hess article on the supposed marginalization of military scholars:

As I recall it, the Society of Civil War Historians was created to reclaim Traditional Military History as a central focus of the war, but look what happened to it. Having attempted to emphasize military history in its formative years, the SCWH (judging from its journal and conferences) has also joined the mainstream. (p. 396)


Source: http://cwmemory.com/2014/12/11/in-defense-of-hess-gallagher-and-meier/ Civil War Memory
 

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Megan Kate Nelson heated things up when what had been a facebook controversy made it to her well-read blog Historista. Nelson characterize the folks writing the military historians manifestos thusly:

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!”

http://www.megankatenelson.com/civil-war-military-historians-are-freaking-out/
 
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In her truly engaging essay, Nelson writes that the military historians are misrepresenting the state of the field of academic historians of the Civil War Era:

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.
 

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The military historians say they are being hit by both amateur military historians and social and cultural historians. Nelson writes:

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.
 
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Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier wrote in the Journal of Civil War History that military historians are pushed aside at academic conventions:

The increasing marginality of traditional military history is nowhere more apparent than at the biennial meetings of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH). Any graduate student or untenured professor contemplating a conventional military topic would find little to encourage such a choice among the ninety-one panels and roundtables at the conference in Philadelphia (2008), Richmond (2010), Lexington (2012) and Baltimore (2014). The 2008 meeting included a roundtable on “The State of Civil War Military History”–added when the dearth of military topics became apparent–and a panel titled “The Influence of Military Operations on Politics and Policy in the Trans-Mississippi.” Beyond those two, not a single session at any of the meetings focused on what could be termed operational history, strategic or tactical thinking or execution, military leadership, or the myriad connections between those areas of investigation and nonmilitary dimensions of the conflict. Wartime debates about regional allocation of military resources, changes in the high commands, tactical choices on the battlefields such as Shiloh and Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, and other related subjects often produced swings of political momentum and otherwise affected civilian attitudes and expectations. In other words, they figured prominently in more than purely military dimensions of the war. Programs at the SCWH conferences suggest otherwise, something all the more striking because the society began in the late 1980s in large part as a response to the absence of military-related panels at the annual meetings of the Southern Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. (Gallagher and Meier, pp. 489-90)

Source: http://cwmemory.com/2014/12/11/in-defense-of-hess-gallagher-and-meier/ Civil War Memory
IMHO Tradition always transitions into a new tradition. An alternative view is that there has to be great opportunity in military topics as the other fields become overcrowded. Wasn't traditional military overcrowded at one time forcing ambitious historians to branch out?
 
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IMHO Tradition always transitions into a new tradition. An alternative view is that there has to be great opportunity in military topics as the other fields become overcrowded. Wasn't traditional military overcrowded at one time forcing ambitious historians to branch out?
I think we are also seeing more of a merging of military with other branches. Piston, William Garrett; Hatcher, Richard (2000). Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It is a great example.
 

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Nelson seems particularly disturbed by the three military historians' attacks on those looking at the Civil War Era through a different lens:

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....


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.
 
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As a layperson interested the ACW political side, I don't need instruction in tactics. Who won the battle, consequences and high level strategy is nice.
 

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As I recall from the article, Hess is opining without evidence.
From the Hess article: "This essay is therefore based on several threads of inquiry. I looked at dissertations completed in Civil War studies and scanned the topics of articles and book reviews in Civil War History and the Journal of the Civil War Era. I also have tried to read most of the articles and books relating to Civil War historiography in the past fifty years and to assess the type of books published by major academic presses in our field. And to gain some sense of what my colleagues thought, I sent a questionnaire to 129 Civil War historians across the country.

"The most important issue that emerged from each of these sources was the role of traditional military history in Civil War studies. In short, some extreme views toward traditional military history have had major influences on how it is perceived; this, in turn, has the potential to seriously affect the future of our discipline." [pp. 371-372]

So he does have evidence. His evidence wasn't presented in the blog articles about his article. In essence, a 33-page article was presented as a single paragraph.
 
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Wayne Hsieh, Associate Professor. 19th Century U.S. Military History at the Naval Academy, responded to Megan Kate Nelson's post on her blog. He felt she was sugar-coating the antagonism many non-military historians have to military history. He wrote:

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...

Hsieh takes a swipe at some non-military scholars of the war: "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*"....
 

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From the Hess article: "This essay is therefore based on several threads of inquiry. I looked at dissertations completed in Civil War studies and scanned the topics of articles and book reviews in Civil War History and the Journal of the Civil War Era. I also have tried to read most of the articles and books relating to Civil War historiography in the past fifty years and to assess the type of books published by major academic presses in our field. And to gain some sense of what my colleagues thought, I sent a questionnaire to 129 Civil War historians across the country.

"The most important issue that emerged from each of these sources was the role of traditional military history in Civil War studies. In short, some extreme views toward traditional military history have had major influences on how it is perceived; this, in turn, has the potential to seriously affect the future of our discipline." [pp. 371-372]

So he does have evidence. His evidence wasn't presented in the blog articles about his article. In essence, a 33-page article was presented as a single paragraph.
Of the questionnaire, Megan Kate Nelson writes:

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.
 

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Carole Emberton of SUNY Buffalo responded to Hsieh's long comment with this:

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.
 
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Emberton goes on to discuss the essay from the Journal of the Civil War Era:

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.
 

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I have not read either of the two essays, although the Gallagher/Meier essay arrived today and I will read it over lunch.
 
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