Civil War historians riot in St. Louis over the question of the centrality of military history to understanding the Civil War
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hear through the history grapevine that the Society of Civil War Historians got more than it bargained for in a Nov. 1 discussion in St. Louis on the topic of “Should Military History Be Central to the Study of the Civil War?” Lots of hooting and hollering and some shouts from the normally quite civil (if you will) members of the society.
My instant response to the question is that military history is necessary but not sufficient, and essential but not central. That is, yes, it is important to understand the war, but it is more important to understand its context — why it happened, what its consequences were, and ultimately, how it shaped the nation.
Also, I’d say, the problem may simply be too narrow a definition of “military history,” as if it were just about tactical questions. On this I would fault some non-academics, who in delving into brass buttons trivia sometimes lose sight of the larger issues. Real military history, I think, should endeavor to combine the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. That’s one reason in my most recent book, The Generals, I covered the Korean War’s Chosin campaign in such details. Not only did it give me a laboratory comparison of the Marine commanders on the west side of the reservoir with the Army commanders on the east, it also enabled me in a book that was mainly about the operational and strategic levels if war to dive down in one section to issues of battalion and company level command.
But I wasn’t there to see for myself, that fateful day in the defeated city of St. Louis. Some eyewitnesses, and even some who weren’t, reported that it was one of the liveliest academic hoedowns in recent years.
The funny thing is that part of the emotion supposedly comes from fears of academic Civil War historians that they are being “marginalized.” Yet the Civil War, along with World War II, actually dominates the military history book market. (You wanna get rich? Write a book titled What Lee Learned, What Patton Knew. You’ll do better than I ****ed a Bear for the FBI or its British equivalent, Golfing for Cats.) So that marginalization may actually exist only in the isolated confines of the academic world, rather like when self-satisfied 19th century Englishmen would report that the European continent was “isolated” by fog.