As he so often does, Mark Grimsley’s blog features an especially interesting line of discussion about where the discipline of military history fits into an academic world that treats it like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. The recent trend among academic history seems to be to downplay military history; Mark mentions a request that was posted on an H-Net list by a modern historian who was far from excited about the prospect of his students looking at issues of military history.
Some have tried to cross this gap by doing interdisciplinary work. George Rable’s book on the Fredericksburg Campaign attempts to do this and fails to provide a complete view of either the military or the social aspects. Ed Hagerty tried to turn a regimental history into a social history with his book on the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry, and bored me so terribly that I never was able to finish it.
Finding a way around this problem is a common theme on Mark’s blog, as he struggles to try to help military history find its niche in the overall scheme of the history discipline. Fortunately, I’m not plagued by this particular burden; not being an academic historian permits me to focus solely on those issues that interest me to the exclusion of those that don’t. And, I must admit, as a general statement, social history is a discipline that bears absolutely no interest for me. Genuinely, I couldn’t care less. Issues such as slavery and its consequences, and the consequences for the freedmen simply are of no interest to me. What interests me are the military aspects–the battles, the men who fought them, and their motivations. Social trends mean nothing to me in the big scheme of things, with the lone exception of how they might impact on those aspects that do interest me.
My fellow blogger Kevin Levin, on the other hand, seems to be primarily interested in the social history aspects of the war, with particular focus on the race relations issues. I tip my hat to Kevin–just because those issues hold no interest to me doesn’t mean that they’re not worthy or that Kevin isn’t to be commended for studying them. In fact, they are worthy, and I do commend Kevin for his interest and pursuit of them. That is, as they say, why there are different flavors of ice cream–each can find his or her favorite flavor. My favorite flavor happens NOT to be social history.
It was, for instance, impossible for me to study the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry without looking at the gap between the regiment’s officer corps and its enlisted men, and what dynamic was created by that gap. So, to some extent, I had to look at the social history of Philadelphia to get a better understanding of that. However, that social history is quickly subsumed by my focus on the military aspects of this excellent regiment.
What stuns me about all of this is that there are some really fine military historians who can’t find work in the academic world. My friend Mark Bradley is working on his Ph.D. dissertation. Mark wrote one the best campaign studies I’ve ever seen in his study of Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign and an equally impressive study of the events that led to Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place in April 1865. His degree will be from a very reputable place, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yet, Mark is finding it very difficult to find a job. Why? He’s a guy whose primary focus is military history. So, in order to hedge his bets, he’s had to compromise. His dissertation deals with Reconstruction, and his project after that will focus on the Freedmen’s Bureau. He’s doing this to “prove” that he also has the chops to do social history, and thereby make himself hireable.
Now, please don’t get me wrong–I fully understand why Mark’s doing what he’s doing. A job is a job, and Mark needs one. So, he’s doing what he must, and nothing I’m saying here should be construed as a criticism of him. It’s not. I will never criticize someone for doing what he or she has to do for their own survival or advancement. That’s not the issue. The issue, rather, is my befuddlement with why the SYSTEM is forcing him to have to make those choices. Isn’t it time that the academics stop treating military history as a red-headed stepchild and give it the respect it deserves, so that a quality individual like Mark Bradley can focus on what he does best?
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