Sunday, July 23, 2006

Something Old, Something New, Something Gray, Something Blue. . .

Many of my fellow Civil War bloggers have weighed in on the idea of a "New Military History," and the tension that some perceive exists between those who treat Civil War subjects with a strictly military narrative, and those who broaden the examination to include political and social themes. Kevin Levin weighs in at Civil War Memory with, "Why do Civil War Military Historians Hate Social History? Mark Grimsley has often commented on the institutional denigration of military history in the academy. Eric Wittenberg has made it known that nothing outside the military events of a campaign or battle hold any interest for him. My own feelings tend to align with the sentiments expressed by Sean Dailthere isn't really a discernible "New Military History." At least not one that will have the effect of supplanting the release of straight campaign and battle studies (and none of the best of these can really avoid political and social questions, since the war exists in relation to those things).

One thing about this New Military History discussion that strikes me as odd is the underlying assumption that there is an old, archaic history on the way out, while the NMH represents an evolving form naturally displacing the first. In truth, the approaches needn't be mutually exclusive, or even get in each other's way.

There is a steady, if small, market for blow-by-blow accounts of the armies in the field, and why not? Many of us find them fascinating. An annual ritual for mewith The Civil War Forumis to read, or re-read, the best-regarded studies of a given battle in advance of a few days of tramping the battlefield with a NPS historian.

All that said, a straight military narrative can make for some dry, tedious reading, and it takes a talented author to mold it into a story worth reading. That's true of all history writing, of course, but particularly true of the kind of narratives found on the overflowing Civil War bookshelf.

I would also mention that, in my experience, strictly military accounts are more likely to be written by amateur historians than more complex efforts to place those events in a larger context (outside the vacuum). There are probably many reasons for this, and I'm not going to try to sort it out in tonight's posting. I will mention that the modern regimental history is a favorite of amateur historians, since it's too narrow for the academic, and is often inspired by a familial relationship to a member of the regiment. Most of the very best campaign and battle studies have been written by historians outside of academiano doubt about that. Authors like Gordon Rhea, Wiley Sword, Bob Krick, Mark Bradley, and many NPS historians, have done work that may never be improved upon. I'm not sure if that's an especially Civil War-related phenomenon, but there it is.

And some of the most mediocre, or worst studies have also been written by non-academics (needless to say, obversely, a PhD degree is far from a guarantee that someone can produce a readable or worthwhile study). For one thing, it may be easier to compile the pieces of the military story when pursued as an avocation. The Official Records serve as the backbone, and from there it's a question of how authoritative one wants to make the bibliographycertain repositories, certain sources, are a must (else one risks damning reviews). The narrative is further enhanced by access to diaries and letters not commonly utilized. The savvy author, amateur or professional, will not skimp on citations, since the ranks of book reviewers may contain even more amateurs than the ranks of authors writing battle narratives. It's not uncommon to see a glowing review of a crappy book based, apparently, on nothing more than a massive bibliography and copious footnotes. The thinking is that it must be worthwhile if the author went to all that trouble.

Research is one thing, but the book still has to be written. One can string things together into a coherent, chronological report, but absent the ability to distill the research and create the story, the resulting recitation is notable less for any talent for research or writing than for the luxury of time it to assemble it all. That shortcoming is why many campaign and battle studies are treated like reference works. People use the index to zero in on a favorite regiment, or to find tidbits about certain officers, or to find an account of one part of a battle, but the balance of the book goes unread. Civil War buffs will buy a book about Stones River, for example, because their great-grandfather's regiment fought there, and whatever passing references the author devoted to that regiment are worth the price of the book. Saves the reader a trip to NARA, or to some state archives.

Getting back to the New Military History / Old Military History discussion, because I work with undergraduate college textbooks, I often peruse the history texts to see what they're saying about the Civil War. I was recently looking at the chapter-ending recommended reading section of American Passages, A History of the United States, by Ayers, Gould, Oshinsky, and Soderlund, a popular college textbook at the moment. In that section that dealt with the heart of the Civil War (in the 3rd edition), students are directed to nine books for further reading, each of which has bibliographic info and a one-line summary.

I expected to see James McPherson's classic Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era (1988) that's as good as it gets. And naturally, there it was. But I was surprised to see the non-academic David J. Eicher's, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (2001). Readers of this blog know how highly I regard the work of David Eicher, but he's a relative newcomer on the scene, and his one-volume history of the warwhile critically well received, as far as I have seen, would seem to be a redundant entry for one-book histories in a very short list of recommended texts.

Ayers, et. al. break it down this way. The editorial commentary on Eicher's book is that it "is the best one-volume military history of the war." By contrast, McPherson's Pulitzer-prize winning tome, "stands as the best one volume account of the war."

Two massive one-volume historiesone a military history, and one an account of the Civil War eraboth, the best of their kind, Kevin Levin's reservations notwithstanding. I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from that, precisely (maybe an email to Ayers would prompt an illuminating reply). But one thing it says is that both approaches offer something of value to the student, and undergraduate texts are still pointing students to the "old" military history as well.

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