On Military History

12 12 2014

In the blogosphere, in print, and on social media currently there is a buzz about the subject of military history. I won’t go into the details and give links – just Google Civil War and Military History and you’ll find plenty of examples. Opinions on what “military history” is, what it is not, and what it is becoming vary widely, as do opinions on whether the issue is a mountain or a molehill. So who am I to not take the opportunity to weigh in?

First off, let me stress that I don’t consider myself a historian, military or otherwise. I’ve said that before and nothing has changed. To me, a historian is an individual who has been trained and accredited in the field of history. In short, someone with a degree in history from a post-secondary institution. Now, I try to adhere to a set of standards which I understand to be good practice in the field, but you only have my word to go by. It’s a base-line thing. It’s not qualitative. Historians can produce awful history, and non-historians can produce great history.

While I have not yet found a good definition for military history, I have developed my own, after a fashion. I’ll make it simple – military history to me is not history that simply involves military operations (though based on some awards given out this past year – and pretty hefty ones at that – that does seem to be a working definition for some pretty prestigious organizations.) Military history, in my opinion, at the very least reflects an understanding of  not only military conventions and doctrines of the time in question – say, the American Civil War – but also of how they fit on the developmental timeline. For example, if one is going to critique decision making, one had better have a good grasp of the experiences (education, training, service) that led the actor to that point. And a military historian is someone whose education in history focused on this specialty. That does not mean that someone untrained in military history cannot produce good military history. It does mean, however, that they are not military historians. To me. At this point.

To put it in simple terms, Sheldon is a theoretical physicist. Leonard, poor Leonard, is only a practical (or applied) physicist. Raj is an astrophysicist. And Wolowitz only has a masters. In engineering. A glorified plumber. You see the differences, right?





Omaha Beach: Seventy Years Ago Today

6 06 2014

487px-116thInfantryBrigade.svg

The 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division spearheaded the division’s assault on Omaha Beach seventy rears ago today, and suffered 341 casualties, including Co. A which lost over 90% of its men within ten minutes of landing. The 116th was – and is today – a Virginia National Guard unit. It’s also known as The Stonewall Brigade, and claims lineage from that as-of-then un-monikered command that gathered on the reverse slope of Henry Hill on July 21, 1861. The above is the regiment’s former shoulder patch. Does it remind you of anything?

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You can read about the men of Company A in The Bedford Boys. And below, some vets of the assault talk about it:





Poll: Sources of Civil War Information

23 04 2013

From whom do you think most interested folks will be getting their information regarding the Civil War era? Since Polldaddy doesn’t let you rank your answers, I have to ask for just one.





Poll: Civil War Information Delivery Systems

21 04 2013

So, what do you think will be the most infuential method of delivering information regarding the Civil War era to the great unwashed, that is, to the majority of folks who are – or may become – interested? Since Polldaddy doesn’t let you rank your answers, I have to ask for just one.





What’s Up With That Cane?

26 07 2011

My current read, At the Precipice: American’s North and South During the Secession Crisis, by Shearer Davis Bowman, hepped me to a bit of information of which I was previously unaware, and prompted a trivia question for you, dear readers.

We all know that on May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally attacked in the Senate chamber with a gutta-percha walking stick in the hands of cowardly Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Any idea why Brooks carried the cane? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t for show, and it wasn’t strictly for beating defenseless Yankees.





Preview: Orlando Figes, “The Crimean War”

15 05 2011

The folks at Henry Holt and Company sent me a copy of a new book by Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History. It’s a big one – 493 pages of text and about 40 more of notes. Earlier this year I finished reading my first comprehensive study of the conflict, Trevor Royle’s Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856. I knew virtually nothing about the Crimean War prior to that, other than Into the Valley of Death rode the 600. But it became obvious to me that anyone studying the Civil War owes it to themselves to at least get a handle on what happened in the Crimea in order to put our American war in some kind of context. It quickly became apparent that many of the “firsts” we attribute to the later war were at best seconds.

Royle’s book was published in 2000, so the first question is what sets Figes’s book apart? It claims to have drawn on “untapped” Russian, Ottoman, and European sources. If you compare the bibliographies of the two books, it’s obvious that Figes lists a lot more book titles in languages I can’t understand (OK, I remember enough high school German to decipher parts of a few) than does Royle. On the other hand, Figes’s select bibliography does not include the archival unpublished collections that are in Royles. But that’s the thing about select bibliographies – what was the selection process?

The real issue for me is whether Figes can do a better job than Royles at keeping all the military and political figures involved straight in the reader’s head. The diplomatic aspects of the Crimean War are labyrinthine, to say the least, and I think Royle took the readers’ familiarity with such things for granted at times. As for pacing, the Light Brigade’s Waterloo is reached at about the midpoint in each book.

Royles’s book concludes with the historical impact of the war and its aftermath, which was far-reaching and resonates to this day. While Figes doesn’t ignore this, he chose to wrap things up with The Crimean War in Myth and Memory, which should be interesting to Civil War readers who have been inundated with similar topics over the past 15 years. (I realize that there is much, much more to the literature than these two books, but I’m limited in my exposure.)

I’m not sure when I’ll get to this one, but if anyone has read it or has a better idea of how it fits into the extensive historiography of the Crimean War, please let us know in the comments section!





What Is Truth?

10 01 2010

I’ve finished Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.  I’ll give some thoughts on the book at some point in the near future.  But it and Larry Tagg’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln got me to thinking: what do we really know of “public opinion” as of a point in time?  I mean, it’s hard even today, with polls out the wazoo, to tell what public opinion is on any given topic.  The most typical resource relied upon for public opinion has been newspapers, including reporting and editorializing.  But let’s keep in mind that newspapers never have been objective, and during the middle period of the 19th century in this country they were unabashedly partisan.  That’s why they had names like “The Democrat”, “The Whig” and “The Republican”.  They reflected the viewpoints of their owners and editors (again, no different from today).  If we admit the lack of objectivity, then we don’t take editorials at face value – we also delve into letters to the editor.  Of course those were selected for publication by the editor as well.  So perhaps we should look in the records of the newspapers themselves: files of letters to the editor that never made it into print.  If they exist, we have to rely on the objectivity of the newspaper in saving the letters.  And even that pool is tainted because it will consist of correspondence from readers of that particular newspaper.  As consumers, we have to deal with another filter, that of the historian who selects (evaluates) what’s pertinent, what’s worthwhile.  Anyway, all this thinking just makes me look more suspiciously at generalizations about what people in the north or south “thought” or “felt”, and about how “pressure from the public” or even the press, influenced decision makers.

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