- Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War ed. by Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang
Sturm und Drang continually surrounds the question of the place of military historians and their labors in Civil War literature and the [End Page 652] historical profession. The most recent noteworthy shots fired in this debate are two essays published in December 2014: one by Earl J. Hess in Civil War History and the other by Gary W. Gallagher and Kathyrn Shively Meier in the Journal of the Civil War Era.1 While offering interesting takes on the matter, it is rather difficult to believe these essays will lead to any kind of resolution to the debate anytime soon—even if historians want or need it, and it is not altogether clear that they really do. If nothing else, one can point to one positive consequence these essays have had—namely, the excuse they provided for Andrew Bledsoe and Andrew Lang to put together the collection of essays that make up Upon the Fields of Battle.
In their introduction, the editors reference the 2014 essays, and the relationship of this volume to them is reinforced by Hess offering the lead essay. While naturally referencing themes, findings, and suggestions in his earlier essay, Hess goes beyond them to make the essay in this volume a distinctive and valuable contribution to literature. He offers an especially impressive case for revisiting traditional sources like the Official Records in ways that modern scholars, in their fetishization of manuscript research, have overlooked, noting that "it was not necessary to uncover a new set of primary sources to offer evidence that a new interpretation of the rifle musket was necessary" (26).
Following Hess are five essays under the part title "The Contested Battlefield." In this section are the only three essays that can be considered operational and tactical military history: Kenneth W. Noe's on the effect of weather on the Peninsula campaign, Jennifer M. Murray's on the Federal pursuit after Gettysburg, and Andrew S. Bledsoe's on the Confederate failure at McLemore's Cove during the Chickamauga campaign. While scholars like William J. Miller have chronicled the nasty weather the Union army had to overcome in 1862,2 Noe's essay offers insights that make this a truly important piece that will leave readers eagerly anticipating his larger project on the effect of weather on Civil War operations. His contribution is one of the true highlights of this volume.
For their part, Murray and Bledsoe seek to provide different ways of thinking about old controversies. Murray argues for sympathy for George Gordon Meade on the grounds that successful pursuits that resulted in the sort of defeat Abraham Lincoln hoped for in July 1862 were incredibly rare in military history. In doing so, she follows the lead of most military historians in the decades since Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones made this point about Civil War armies.3 Bledsoe uses the McLemore's Cove episode to consider the challenge of writing field orders. While the nineteenth century saw much in militaries that had previously been left to improvisation [End Page 653] become institutionalized and standardized, Bledsoe notes that this development had yet to extend to the critical matter of writing orders in 1863. It is an interesting point, though anyone familiar with the dysfunctional history of the Army of Tennessee could fairly wonder if even perfectly crafted orders would have made any difference in September 1863.
One of Hess's suggestions for further areas of exploration for Civil War military historians is the challenge of occupation duty, which is addressed superbly in John J. Hennessy's essay on Fredericksburg's experience under the shadow of Union guns in 1862. He traces this experience in the context of the evolution of Union policy toward southern civilians, which was manifest in the contrast between the enlightened policy of Irvin McDowell in...