Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Initial Response to First Reviews

Rafuse's review appears in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Military History.  Also, I think I may given an impression that overstates how much West Pointers and the Civil War focuses on tactical issues; I also talk a good deal about the importance of army organization, ideological views of citizen soldiers, and my chapter on the secession crisis is in large part an examination of notions of duty and Unionism within the old army's officer corps.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Working at History

As a whole, academic historians of the Civil War do not double as re-enactors.  There seems to be a wide variety of reasons for this--differences in cultural background, approach to history, etc.--but I do actually play in a "Vintage Baseball" club (the Chesapeake and Potomac) that plays according to 1860s rules (the most important involving no gloves, but a softer glove, and outs on one bounce).  That's me to the left playing second base and waiting to receive a throw.  However, as I put it to a reporter: "Baseball, for me, is mostly fun. Otherwise, it would be like work."  Thus, while being a huge Dodgers fan, I really know very little about the historic origins of baseball as a game, and this ignorance is deliberate, because, well, as I said, I don't want baseball to be work, and studying the past is quite literally my day job. Some of my teammates, of course, take things more seriously.

While studying and teaching history is a great gig, like any other form of employment, there's a fair amount of drudge work.  Perhaps the most dreary is grading, a necessary but important part of teaching.  But every good academic historian has spent his or her fair share of time nosing through archival material, and I sometimes think we over-romanticize the process--the supposed thrill of finding documents, discovering the past, blah, blah.  Or perhaps I've just become overly cynical.  Nevertheless, some of this research involves drudgery, and I sometimes think historians should actually emphasize that more--that doing good history involves countless dead ends, wasted effort, mind-numbing attempts to decipher bad handwriting, etc.  This is hardly manual labor, of course, but I certainly think historians have more than their fair share in the humanities of thankless combing through piles of "stuff"--I've met economists and political scientists who actually have said outright that they draw on historical research and respect it, in part because they would never want to put in the time looking at microfilm reels, sneezing over dusty manuscripts, etc.  But that really is one of the strengths of the field--that we don't construct grand models, and actually *know* things at a high level of resolution--not to be too harsh on my fellow scholars in those disciplines, which have their own strengths--namely that they're sometimes better at seeing the forest, instead of focusing on the trees like us.

But while "popular" history, particularly in the case of work on the American Civil War, frequently rests on a strong foundation of research (I think especially of the work of Stephen Sears), bad popular history's usual vice stems from, to put it bluntly, a lack of work in the necessary sources.  Popular historians usually write better than their counterparts, and are sometimes just smarter, but when popular history is bad, it tends to be from too little time with the sources, and too little time looking at what other historians have already produced, which comes down to not enough work.

Now, being smart obviously helps, but from my own anecdotal impression, the real genius academics in the humanities tend not to be historians--they instead to be folks who can learn absurdly difficult languages, literature professors who have vast amounts of poetry and prose bouncing around in their heads, or philosophers who deal with really abstruse concepts.  But historians do tend to be more practical and level headed, and I think that's because our discipline puts a strong premium on disciplined work in primary sources, and eccentric genius is simply less valuable--and frequently too impatient for truly succeeding at the craft of history.  The nice side-effect of this is that historians tend to be not as utterly hopeless at things like administrative tasks, or just being sensible human beings; I do not think history as a whole, for example, has gone through the debilitating and schismatic theoretical fights that have afflicted disciplines like anthropology and the study of literature.  For example, as a graduate student, my impression of  the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, which I rather sardonically saw as the People magazine of college professors, always seemed to focus more on professors of literature, because as far as I could tell, they always had the preposterous tales of ludicrous faculty infighting and bickering, as opposed to more staid historians, who were just too dull to be covered very much in such a publication.  The downside of all this is that fewer historians are genuine geniuses.  Although, compared to the general population, I'm sure most academic historians come off as pretty strange and hapless people when it comes to practical pursuits, who nevertheless possess abstruse and specialized forms of knowledge that somehow suit us to teach young people.

Nevertheless, when I read good history at least, I always think of all the work that went into it, and I think that's part of the almost earthy appeal of the discipline.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Upton's Attack at Spotsylvania

Emory Upton looms large in my book, both for his tactical excellence during the American Civil War, and the influence he holds in the American Army after the Civil War's close.  Because I end my book in 1865, I only give a cursory treatment of Upton's role as an important post-Civil War reformer, but I do talk more extensively about the innovative assault he conducted on May 10 at Spotsylvania.  Upton massed his sized force of roughly five thousand me in a powerful column four lines deep, with three regiments in each line, and he made preparations for the attack normally not taken during the Civil War.  These included having only lead regiments cap their muskets, to discourage premature firing--many Civil War assaults failed because troops halted their crucial (and frequently un-restartable) offensive momentum to open fire, leading to firefights where they were at a severe disadvantage--actually giving his subordinates clear objectives to complete during the assault, conducting a proper reconnaissance of the position, etc.  For me, Upton's attack is a useful example of how infantry assaults, even against strong fortified positions, could succeed on a local tactical level, but how even the most successful ones would still become strategically barren due to failures of coordination at the division and corp levels of organization.  In Upton's, case, due to poor staffwork and general confusion, his local success went unsupported and unexploited.

The photo in this post comes from a recent trip I took to Spotsylvania in preparation for the regular staff ride I do for midshipmen there, and I'd like to make a plug for visiting that battlefield, which is something of a hidden gem, even in comparison to the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields that are part of the same larger NPS complex.  The battle is itself an important part of the Overland Campaign, but enough of it is preserved in a compact enough space that you can get a strong sense of the flow of the battle in a one-day visit--something which is not really the case in my opinion at Gettysburg.  And while Gettysburg remains the most famous of Civil War battles, Spotsylvania from my perspective is more interesting, because of its important role in the larger campaign where Grant and Lee duel, and which leads to the eventual demise of the Confederacy. Also, I like taking midshipmen there in large part because I feel many will go or have gone to Gettysburg on their own initiative, and I'd rather take them to a less well-known field.  But I think that also applies to the larger Civil War public, which naturally gravitates to the dramatic ground in Pennsylvania.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ready to be inspired?

While the similarities between current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American Civil War are few and far between, one eerie similarity is the prominence of amputees among wounded survivors.  During the Civil War, this was a result of the low muzzle velocity and soft lead of the minie ball, which resulted in rounds that mushroomed on impact and shattered bones into gruesome fragments, making amputations the only possible treatment at the time.  The primitive state of nineteenth-century medicine also made tourniquets and amputations one of the few useful things Civil War-era doctors could do.

In contrast, dramatic advances in battlefield medicine, especially in relation to stopping blood loss, have made it possible to save troops who in previous wars would have essentially bled out, but while a combat medic can stop leading, he or she cannot restore a limb that was destroyed by an IED.  I once had the privilege of being in the audience of a Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC (an experience I highly recommend), and the guests of honor at the parade were wounded warriors from Walter Reed, most of whom were amputees.  For me at least, it did feel like being at a reunion of Civil War veterans.  While this sort of thing can be heartbreaking, I personally think it a mistake to see these victims as being primarily objects of pity.  Whatever one thinks of the justness or rightness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I will always see figures like SPC Brendan Marrocco as heroes and warriors (and I use that term in a distinctly unironic way) who should be admired, not because they are pitiable, but because they can overcome hardship and difficulty.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

West Pointers and the Civil War Project Origins

Part 1 of my first stab at videoblogging on West Pointers and the Civil War. This is a general introduction to the rationale behind my videoblogging, and a brief synopsis of the book. Part 2. This covers how I became interested in my project, and has some material on historiography (Note that due to a brain cramp, I call my 8th grade social science teacher Mr. Blackwell, not Mr. Blackwood, which is his actual name). Part 3. Wrap up - What didn't fit in the ten minute limit for Part 2. For those more interested in the question of "Why Military History Matters," I suggest you take a look at more formally written piece I did for Mark Grimsley's War Historian blog.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Weekly Standard Review

Barton Swaim in the Weekly Standard has just reviewed West Pointers and the Civil War. Unfortunately, only subscribers can view the full review, but I thought the review did a good job talking about the most important arguments I make. And, of course, I certainly appreciated the positive tenor of the review.