One of the liveliest sessions I’ve ever attended was one yesterday afternoon on the question of whether military history should be central to the study of the Civil War. Carol Reardon presided, with Gary Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, and Jim Hogue offering their thoughts.
Gallagher kept his remarks short in arguing that understanding the military aspects of the war was essential to comprehending the other parts of American society during the era. Gordon’s comments were longer and centered on the definition of military history and the different audience to which the study of the Civil War appeals. Hogue suggested that the military history of the Civil War needed to be studied in depth, in breadth, and in context.
The Q & A with the audience exposed how volatile this question remains. (Reardon explained that the panel had been added because there weren’t enough Civil War panels on the program [!!!], and the panel’s title had been given to the participants.) Audience members expressed concern that Civil War history was being marginalized and that the panelists were arguing that military history needed to take precedence over other perspectives of the war.
The most tense exchange took place between Hogue and Dan Feller. As part of his remarks, Hogue offered an anonymous professor’s Civil War syllabus, which stated that that the course was not primarily about the military side of the war, as an example of the unfortunate marginalization of military history. Several audience members expressed support for the syllabus language as a way to ward off the “buffs” who only want to fight battles blow-by-blow, but Feller was the most vocal. Hogue took him to task for limiting access to students’ education, which I think misconstrued Feller’s intent. The back-and-forth became so heated that Gallagher jokingly suggested that the two take it into the hallway and sell tickets.
I understand both perspectives, but I have to side with Feller. I know exactly what he and other audience members were talking about. I’ve had Civil War classes with students who sulked unless we talked about battles and complained when we didn’t talk about the troop movements. I structure my Civil War course, which runs from roughly 1848-1877, into three sections: antebellum, the war, and Reconstruction and memory. That leaves approximately five weeks to discuss all aspects of the war itself. There simply isn’t enough time to delve into the military minutiae, just like there isn’t time to discuss political elections, which interest me more than military history, in detail. To head off complaints, on the first day of class, I tell students the course structure so that they understand that they might need to adjust their expectations or drop the course. Honestly, though, I’ve found that most students are more put off by the reading and writing expectations than by whether I talk or don’t talk enough about military history.
One final thought about this session. As a Jacksonian historian whose secondary interest is in the Civil War, I understand the fears of marginalization that Civil War historians, especially those who focus on military history, have. I wonder, in fact, whether Civil War history might find itself fading once we get past the sesquicentennial. That sounds unthinkable, but I would bet that historians in the 1950s and 1960s never thought that the Jacksonian era would be as marginalized and ignored as it is today.
Read another historian’s perspective on this panel.