15 February 2006 by Published in: General musings 10 comments

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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Comments

  1. Mike Peters
    Wed 15th Feb 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Eric wrote:

    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.

    Eric:

    All I can add to the above is AMEN!

    Mike

  2. Dave Kelly
    Wed 15th Feb 2006 at 9:38 pm

    Philosophically, one has to realize that in a supply and demand universe there are a limited number of chairs and many aspirants to fill them. Life isn’t fair or reasonable; it’s survivalist.

    Intellectual revenge comes in the form of exception. Institutional intellectualism seldom has epiphanies. The really good stuff is usually an outlaw brainfart by some lil’ole genius out cruising on his own…

    Kevin’s handwringing and other hardcore instituionalist insistence that military historians are “square pegs” is laughable. They were writing military history a long time before enlightened touch-me feel me socially responsible intellects decided what is now important. (I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect la la la ;) ). (Tell that to religious based fundamentalists, drug lords, and the starving illiterate welter of the third world looking hungrily at the fat cities of New Rome…)

    I could go on, but its not my soap box. (PS: two of the great innovative minds in 20th Century Classical Music were Americans, Charles Ives and Ed. Alden Carpenter. Both were professionally Insurance Salesman.)

    Just a manic ramble…

  3. Wed 15th Feb 2006 at 10:22 pm

    First, most academic social historians have no interest in military history because they have no military experience or sympatico with those that do have such experience. That being said, allow me to offer what may turn out to be a minority view here: “social” history and “military” history are in fact, (to paraphrase Holmes, Jr.) “a seamless web.” Take one of the factors cited by Mr. Peters as being of interest to him–soldiers’ motivations. One cannot understand motivation without first considering the following factors (among others): private and civil religion, c. 1860; the immigrant experience for at least 25% of the Federal army; the highly gendered nature of family life during this period; social class and its impact on recruiting, staying power in the field, and the relationship between officers and the ranks; the broader economy, especially the relationship between employment, wages and recruiting; in short, Mr. Peters’ interest in “the men who fought” is by nature social, since every man who did so was a product of socialization (including, by the way, his race.)

    So as a “general statement” there is no such thing as a pure Civil War “military” history that somehow orbits in the past a separate sphere.

  4. Wed 15th Feb 2006 at 10:52 pm

    Dave,

    I fear that a lot of this is symptomatic of the trend toward political correctness that permeates this country. Touchy-feely is PC. Military history is not. It may be that simple.

    I think that the PC factor, in turn, helps to drive the demand/supply for teachers. If there were more interest–less PC, in other words–perhaps there would be more supply.

    Eric

  5. Wed 15th Feb 2006 at 10:55 pm

    Richard,

    Actually, it me who said he was interested in soldiers’ motivations and in the men who fought. Mike Peters was just seconding my comments.

    Having said that, your point is well-taken and only elaborates on my original point, which is that while the two disciplines are intertwined, there are nevertheless clear boundaries, and social historians seem to lose interest the moment that boundary is reached.

    Eric

  6. Mike Peters
    Thu 16th Feb 2006 at 12:14 am

    Richard:

    My “Amen” to Eric’s sermon had more to do with my CW reading/studying preferences. I’ll take a good regimental, well-researched bio or indepth campaign study & let others debate the cause(s) of the conflict.

    Mike

  7. Andy
    Thu 16th Feb 2006 at 12:51 pm

    Eric, I like to see myself as a Civil War Historian which in my own limited view means that I like to study all aspects of the war both military and social. My focus has been on the individual soliders and the First Maine Heavy Artillery which to me means I need to have some understanding of the social background of the soliders (ie. economic background, famliy, etc) and the tactical military situation they were put into. Maybe my slant toward regimental histories allows my to see need for both. I actually enjoyed Hagerty’s book becuse it combined these elements. He could have done a better job weaving the two togther. I think Miller’s book does a very good job bringing togther the social and military history elements to tell the story of the 20th Mass.

    Regards
    Andy

  8. Sam Elliott
    Mon 20th Feb 2006 at 9:39 am

    Another good regimental that looks at the social background of the unit’s soldiers is JD Fowler’s Mountaineers in Gray, which examines the men and experience of the 19th Tennessee.

    Sam Elliott

  9. Mon 20th Feb 2006 at 7:47 pm

    Sam,

    How is the mix? Does it lean heavily toward one direction? Or is it pretty even?

    Eric

  10. Sam Elliott
    Tue 21st Feb 2006 at 9:08 am

    I think its pretty well balanced. It may lean to the social side just a little bit, but the point is to identify the men who fought in this unique regiment. It was one of the few CS regiments from East Tennessee that was worth a damn, and JD tries to answer why.

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