And The Dead (Fields of History) Shall Rise Up

December 11, 2014, 10:07 am

jefferson-davis-in-a-dress-1865-caricatureFollowing on the public hissies being thrown about the demise of The New Republic, there is apparently another cause for concern about the death of intellectual life as we know it: the history of the Civil War is being miserably neglected.

This will surprise many people. Am I the only one who remembers that some years back the Journal of American History announced that it was no longer accepting everything written about the Civil War for review? This was not because of an unreasoning prejudice against these books, but because they were completely awash in them and there were many other fields that needed the space.

Fact: military histories of the Civil War are staples for some university presses. They are not being published because they are exactly interesting, but because there is a solid and dependable market for Civil War and local history. There are enthusiasts out there who will read anything about, say, a new interpretation of the failure to take Little Round Top; a collection of letters from an obscure soldier; or an account of four, bitter years in a Tennessee County where (you will be shocked to learn) brother fought brother. These are not useless books by any means, but if military historians want more attention, they might want to write books with a wider appeal.

So what’s the fuss about? Megan Kate Nelson, an award-winning Civil War Historian, skools us at Historista: two special issues from two separate Civil War journals are warning us that their field is dying. As Nelson writes,

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).

As Nelson notes, the manifestos target two culprits. People who write popular history are the first, a stunning revival of the dangers that local historical societies and gentleman amateurs posed to new, university-trained professionals at the end of the nineteenth century (this is documented in the early chapters of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, 1988.) The other culprits are your favorite history punching bags, social and cultural historians, who have been accused of distracting the field of United States history from everything that matters since time began for decades. As you may have noted political history died years ago because of the onslaught of these rogue intellectuals. Interestingly., Novick himself launches an extended, and somewhat ill-informed, attack on social and cultural history in the final chapters of That Noble Dream, apparently failing to understand that he is re-enacting the scenario with which he launched the book.

I really can’t believe that this kind of thing is still published in such an uncritical way. In addition, as Nelson points out, “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.”

In other words, thank you Megan Kate Nelson: military history has changed. Historians now know what professional military know, which is that an engagement can be lost because soldiers’ privates are weeping with syphilis, or their feet hurt (this is why checking socks is what every platoon commander still does before a mission.) Before these were details, and now they are important.

I would like to suggest that there is another answer to the question.  It’s not that military history, in all fields, is not being published widely, it’s that, like a lot of what we might call “traditional” political history, it isn’t getting the professional recognition it once did because it has to compete with a lot of good work done in many emerging fields. Look at this year’s AHA prize list: military and political history is notably absent except for — wait for it — the Beveridge Prize, won by a book about the role of sex and sexual policy making during World War II. In addition, look at the number of books in environmental history that are killing it with the prize committees. If you really think this is presentist, I would say: what is the point of history if it refuses to respond to the most urgent issues of our time?

I now ask myself: under what circumstances would I ever read another book about the Civil War that was not written by a friend, or did not have some relevance to another field of history? It’s my view that everyone has the responsibility to make their work significant to a larger audience, rather than blame the audience itself.  For example, Edward L. Ayers’ The Valley of the Shadow Project succeeded in making a micro-history of the Civil War relevant and useful to a diverse audience.

Perhaps I am a bad pick because my field is very far from the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand, as members of my former department occasionally pointed out, we in United States history only have about three hundred years and one nation to track, a pittance compared to an Africanist who is expected to teach the entire continent from the beginning of time to the present. So it would not be unreasonable to keep pace with the Civil War, would it? In that vein, I do skim the reviews, but I do not turn to military history as a way to keep up with the nineteenth century unless I am persuaded that it is worth my valuable and limited reading time.

Readers — do you have alternative explanations for calls to revive a field that seems, in fact, to be thriving?

Hat tip to Jim Downs, a Civil war historian, for bringing this to my attention.

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