"Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History": A Response

The December issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era questions the state and direction of military history as a field.  As the scholarship on the Civil War has developed over the last few decades the emphasis has moved from the battlefield to the homefront and explores subjects other than "drum and bugle" history.  In their foreword to this special issue of the journal, historians Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier offer their comments on military history and its important role in understanding and studying the Civil War.  Many of their points deserve close attention, for they offer good suggestions for the direction of the field; other comments pointedly object to a rising set of scholarship which I argue follows the cycle of historical interpretation.

One of Gallagher and Meier's very well justified points is the necessity of historians who study the Civil War, or any military conflict, to be well grounded in the military history of the war itself.  You cannot properly study a war without studying the military conflict as the armies and of a war are central to understanding the conflict and its larger implications.  The authors lament the lack of new-generation historians trained professionally in the military history of the Civil War.  As a historian of that new generation, now passing through my academic training, I can see exactly what these two scholars are saying.  I received little to no education in the military history of the war in college or graduate school.  I have a background in military knowledge only because I attended a Civil War intensive semester at Gettysburg College, where we were required to read traditional battle monographs and visit battlefields. I have worked for several years at a national park that interprets four Civil War battlefields.  I agree with Gallagher and Meier that historians need to receive a well-rounded training that includes at least a basic understanding of the armies and the major battles and campaigns. 

The traditional battle histories that focus on the armies and battles are more common in public history, whether in interpretations by war-related sites or in the interests of the wider population.  While popular interests remain focused on traditional military history academia is moving farther and farther away from it, a process that the author notes furthers the divide already existent between academic and public history.  Maintaining a balanced connection between the histories of the war told by academic and public historians is crucial to properly interpreting the war and connecting to the audience beyond the historians' circle.  Gallagher and Meier write:

Because most Americans receive their first introduction to the conflict through battles and generals, military history affords the best way to bring the two wars together in a fashion likely to attract the broadest audience.  A certain kind of military history, framed to explain how battles influenced the home fronts and how, in turn, politics and public opinion shaped the Union and Confederate war efforts, will be required to accomplish the task.  Success will depend on wooing readers who begin with popular treatments of battles and campaigns, piquing their interest in the other war, and providing a bridge that will carry them across the chasm between academic and nonacademic history. (498)

The authors use the National Park Service as an example of where historians connect the battlefield with the homefront.  Starting in the 1990s the NPS has shifted interpretation at Civil War sites to include more social, cultural, and political context to the military battles and campaigns that remain central to interpreting the ground visitors are viewing.  While public historians are moving to bridge the gap between public understandings of the war and new scholarship, the authors do not see the same trend among academic historians.  The three essays that Gallagher and Meier chose to follow their foreword are examples of this suggested style of scholarship, of seeing the connections between the front lines and the homefront without exclusively looking at one over the other.

Where I disagree with Gallagher and Meier is their commentary on a rising set of scholarship:

The most recent incarnation of the increasing focus on victims in Civil War  history appears to be our scholarly preoccupation with the war's "dark side"—studies that emphasize, among other things, atrocities, cowardice, needless bloodshed, physical maiming, or mental breakdowns among soldiers and veterans.  There is nothing particularly new about this, as the writings of Ambrose Bierce, Frank Wilkeson, and many pioneering scholars between the 1920s and 1980s might attest, and no scholar steeped in sources would suggest that most soldiers committed atrocities, exhibited cowardice in combat (a behavior very difficult to categorize in many ways), or suffered debilitating physical or psychological traumas that prevented their moving past military service to live productive postwar lives.  Compelling evidence from the war and the postwar years clearly shows that most soldiers, even those on the losing side, found much to celebrate about their often arduous service...The analytical risk of overemphasizing the dark side is that readers who do not know much about the war might infer that atypical experiences were in fact normative ones.  (492)

I will admit my bias upfront; my own research is about mental trauma among Civil War soldiers, a topic that lies squarely within the above comments.  It may be true that the experiences highlighted in recent scholarship is not the majority experience, but that does not negate the relevance of new study to a fuller understanding of the war.  If done correctly, scholarship on mental, physical, social, or cultural aspects that lie outside of the traditional box does not automatically become ahistorical, a term the authors use a few paragraphs later.  Being steeped in the military history and scholarship of the war, as the authors suggest throughout the entire foreword, is the very best way to create meaningful scholarship out of these new topics.  Understanding the place of cowardice and bravery as opposite concepts in the nineteenth century illuminates actions among soldiers and officers on the battlefield.  Examinations of mental trauma, such as the work I am doing, examines the environment of warfare and how soldiers used social, cultural, and military understandings to cope with their experiences, adding on the scholarship about the experiences of the common soldier.  If done conscientiously, new scholarship in the "dark side," as Gallagher and Meier call it, could effectively bridge military history with the homefront, which is what they encourage.

In new scholarship trends, such as that commented on by Gallagher and Meier here, there is always a concern about being ahistorical (essentially placing modern understandings upon the past).  The authors point to a modern focus on atrocities, irregular warfare, PTSD, and the readjustment of veterans in the post-Vietnam period as the cause of new scholarship about the Civil War on the "dark side."  While this is most likely true, it is not a new phenomenon.  Historical interpretation and scholarship moves in cycles that often matches the concerns of the present generation; for example, the large wave of studies on the African-American experience and slavery following the Civil Rights Movement or the rise of gender and women's history in the later decades of the twentieth century.  Many new fields of scholarship are questioned in the beginning until they are accepted by academia, and most of the works that come out of each new interpretation focus solely on their arguments (and thus paint them as very important, sometimes disproportionally).  I think Gallagher and Meier are right to caution historians to be careful and maintain the historical integrity of their work, but should not to disavow the topics entirely.  I hope they, and other historians, will remain open minded out this new cycle of interpretation.

While imploring Gallagher and Meier to be a little less harsh on new interpretations of the war, I will echo their sentiments about a balanced portrayal of the two wars (home front and front lines).  I think that maintaining knowledge of military history will prevent some of the problems they fear in new scholarship while also preserving that knowledge and helping academic historians connect to broader audiences.  Graduate students, in particular, should make the effort to educate themselves on the military conflict if their graduate programs do not, either by reading or through work with a battlefield or related site.  Working with the National Park Service has been an invaluable experience for me, both personally and professionally, and the resulting understanding of battles and the soldiers who fought them will help my research perspective immensely.  The rising generation of historians should maintain a broad connection to the conflict, avoid getting too lost in their individual topics, and use available experiences, resources, and technologies to connect with both academic and public historians.  Only then can we take on the responsibility of telling the amazing history of the Civil War, maintaining the legacy of the historians who have come before, and add our own voices to the ever-shifting interpretation of the war.     

To read the original article see the Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume 4, Number 4 (December 2014).

Read other responses to the Gallagher/Meier article by Kevin Levin and Mary Kate Nelson

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.