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  • Rejuvenating Civil War Military HistoryA New Take on Infantry Tactics
  • Earl J. Hess (bio)

editor's note: The following represents the acceptance speech for the Watson Brown Prize for the best book published on the Civil War era in the calendar year 2015. Tad Brown, president of the Watson-Brown Foundation, awarded the prize to Earl Hess for his book Civil War Infantry Tactics, published by the Louisiana State University Press. These remarks were given at the annual banquet of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH), held during the Southern Historical Association annual meeting on November 3, 2016, in St. Pete Beach, Florida. The SCWH judges and administers the book prize.

In the aftermath of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is evident that a significant reevaluation of the war's military history, and the place it holds within Civil War studies, is needed. Even before the 150-year anniversary ran its course, strong voices were raised on this issue. Two landmark articles, published in December 2014, raised questions and suggested answers about the state of military history in the study of America's civil conflict.

Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, in "Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History," published in the Journal of the Civil War Era, address many important issues. Among the most important is the dearth of graduate students and junior-level scholars who deal in meaningful ways with Civil War military history.1

At exactly the same time, my own article, "Where Do We Stand? A Critical Assessment of Civil War Studies in the Sesquicentennial Era," appeared in the pages of Civil War History. In it, I argued strenuously that traditional military history remains an important element in academic Civil War studies, despite the comparatively few scholars who work in that subtopic, and that the field cannot afford to marginalize it, ignore it, or let it die a quiet death.2 [End Page 167]

And yet, in 1996, eighteen years prior to the appearance of Gallagher and Meier's article and my own, Mark Grimsley of The Ohio State University wrote a provocative comment on his blog. Entitled "Why Military History Sucks," it was critical of the old-fashioned nature of Civil War military history. Grimsley characterized it as dated in the face of new trends that emphasized social and cultural aspects of the conflict. The message was clear: military historians need to get up to date or be left out in the cold.3

It has become increasingly evident to me over the years that Grimsley was right. In a forthcoming essay, tentatively entitled "Rejuvenating Traditional Military History in the Current Age of Civil War Studies," I acknowledge that the study of Civil War military history has stagnated for several reasons. This essay will appear in an anthology edited by Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang that is entitled War is the Remedy. The anthology is designed to raise awareness of the need for a new dialogue about what Civil War military history is and what it can become in the next few decades.4

In "Rejuvenating Traditional Military History," I point out that we cannot afford to let Civil War military history become the sole preserve of amateur historians. Although a handful of nonacademic writers of history produce work of a quality that is as high as that of many academic historians, the overwhelming majority of them are not capable of doing the extensive archival research, the analysis of key points, or the exploration of new topics that are essential if Civil War military history is to grow out of the doldrums it has stagnated into during the past few decades.

There is a pressing need for a new perspective on Civil War military history—how we approach it and its purpose in our field. There are many opportunities for academic scholars to take Civil War military history into a new phase in its development, but this will not happen if they are content to write yet another colorful narrative of a battle or yet another biography of a well-known commander that contains no new insights and is geared toward a general audience. Instead, our work...


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pp. 167-180
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