- Editor’s Note
Twenty-five years ago, Maris A. Vinovskis published a famous essay that asked whether social historians had lost the Civil War. “Almost every battle and skirmish has been thoroughly examined and reexamined, and several scholarly and popular journals specialize in analyzing the conflict,” he wrote, adding, “Over eight hundred histories of Civil War regiments have been published, and more are under way.”1 He chided historians for neglecting the impact of that war on everyday life in the United States. Those comments may seem ironic today. Things have changed a great deal since that rallying cry to social historians. Numerous works have explored the ramifications of the war, and a body of work has emerged that can be considered a true literature of the home front. So much has changed in those twenty-five years, in fact, that one might wonder now whether it is the military historian who might be in danger of losing the Civil War.
That statement is exaggerated, of course. Military history is still being produced and consumed. But it is also true that the emphasis on military history in the academy, especially the studies that focus on understanding armies and operations, has declined when compared to the ever-burgeoning number of books on nonmilitary aspects. Even work that touches on armies has spent a good deal of time on guerrilla warfare and the darker corners of the conflict rather than conventional operations. Military historians still hold important posts at top universities, and they have helped expand the concept of this subfield to include War and Society, or the integrated relationship of home front and battlefield. They even, arguably, pioneered in the methods of social and cultural history through work on such things as motivation of soldiers, memory of the conflict, and the extent of slaveowning and slave use within General Lee’s army. But the field of Civil War–era studies has expanded so much over the past twenty-five years that the sheer volume of social, and especially cultural, history might now overshadow the studies of armies. And even when a topic that seems to the bystander to deal with a military topic appears in journals or on conference panels, the historians steeped in this expertise often look sadly at their well-intentioned comrades and shake their heads.
Consequently, I am delighted that Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier accepted the invitation to serve as guest editors in producing this special issue on military history of the Civil War. One value in this lies in clarifying for nonmilitary historians what it is, what makes it tick, and why it still offers essential areas of inquiry for understanding the conflict. [End Page 485]
None of this means a return to the old drum-and-bugle style of history. In their well-framed introduction, they update us on the status of military history today—how we got to where we are and how we might move forward. And the authors they have assembled offer pieces on minstrelsy and blackface within Union camps, the siege mentality the Copperheads helped forge within the Army of the Potomac, and the conflict soldiers felt between republican principles and coercion while occupying the post–Civil War South. Rounding out the issue, Kevin Levin revisits the persistent claims by people outside of the academy that slaves formed a significant number of soldiers in the Confederate army. Not part of the articles forming the special issue, Levin’s piece educates us nonetheless on a ridiculous mythology concerning the southern army—a mythology that promulgates itself through the power of the open-sourced Internet.
1. Maris A. Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations,” Journal of American History 76, no. 1 (June 1989): 34. [End Page 486]