SHA 2013: Is Military History Central to the Study of the Civil War?

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 GallagherLesley 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.

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6 Replies to “SHA 2013: Is Military History Central to the Study of the Civil War?”

  1. Hey Mark, Just coming up for air from busy work week on this Friday night to respond to your post. I’m a social historian who still sees that military history is vital to teaching the Civil War, including elements of how armies were organized, fed, and armed; how battles/the War went tactically and strategically; and the combat experience. I start my course in 1850 and deal with the sectional issues but I feel it important that students come away with a sense of what it was like to participate as a soldier, general, politician and civilian is this massively bloody conflict fought on American soil. Knowing the intricacies of the Kansas-Nebraska act is fine, but ultimately all these issues around slavery, the “right” to secede etc. were settled by force of arms. As part of this I show some scenes from Gettysburg to give them a feel of what it was like to fight in the War.

    My own work on the Irish highlights how important the military experience was to all Irish, not just those in the armed forces. The civilian experience on the home front was completely connected to military matters. Irish women and children often lost their major breadwinner to military exigencies, incarceration, wounds and/or death. Their plight was exacerbated by the blockade and whenever the battle front came close. Of course when the battle field came close and the Federals succeeded ,then the problems eased, though not for those who considered themselves ardent Confederates. As Paul Quigley has shown in his recent book, eventually it was the War itself, and the sacrifice that came with it, that defined Confederate nationalism.(Aaron Sheehan-Dean has found something similar for Virginia soldiers). Same was true on the Union side for white soldiers. Christian Samito has shown that full Irish citizenship, and indeed citizenship itself, was closely linked to military service in the mid-nineteenth century. Memories of the war were also a key element in the response to Reconstruction. My take on the Irish is that memory was central to them attaining their integration into the white hegemony of the late 19th century.

    Beyond the significance of the military side to understanding the whole era, it’s important that present-day students, in this age of wars, understand all the elements of America’s bloodiest war and not just its origins and results. Discouraging the buffs from signing up is not a good thing. Let them have their days of Jomini, Shiloh, etc. but also give them politics, gender, and the realities of winning a war but losing the peace. I loved making them read the work of Stephanie McCurry as well as McPherson. There are a lot of good military works out there too that can make folk think (Joe Glatthaar’s work on black soldiers and the Army of N. VA spring to mind, as well as the battle histories by Peter Cozzens, Gordon Rhea and Stephen Sears). As I mentioned on twitter, Gary Gallagher’s work is also very integrative.

    Ok, that’s enough from me. Back to ‘Later with Jools Holland’ on BBC2! Best, David

  2. I have actually seen “This is not primarily a military history course” listed as a disclaimer in course catalogues! The Civil War seems to be the biggest attractor of “buffs” – people would never expect a Revolution course to be primarily military history, and the civilian leaders are better known than the military ones (except for Washington). World War II maybe comes close.

  3. Mark,

    I’d hoped to meet you in person at SHA, but alas: the best laid plans of mice and men… What I wanted to say at the panel, had there been time and had I the fortitude to handle such a blowback, is that the Civil War–and in particular the military component of that topic–has long held a privileged “pedestal” position within American society and the historical field. I think we’re seeing a leveling of that plane. In that view, it’s not so much that the CW or military history is being “marginalized,” but that it’s having to compete much more stridently for its place at the table. And may have to adjust accordingly. Just thoughts off the top of my head. Regardless, I appreciate your thoughts and your scholarship!

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