In Defense of Teaching Civil War Military History

Some of you may remember a session at the 2013 Southern Historical Association Meeting at which a round-table discussion attempted to weigh the utility of centering military history narratives at the heart of Civil War courses. The panelists endeavored to untangle the stereotyped courses that either decry or ignore military history altogether against those that base the entire course exclusively on the tactical and strategic events that stretched from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. The session occasioned myriad emotional responses from the audience who approach their courses in diverse ways. It seemed that there did not exist a consensus on how to teach the American Civil War, what to emphasize, and what to minimize.

I remember that panel well. It was really hot and stuffy in the conference room. But I also recall thinking, “how would I teach the Civil War Era?” I knew my biases, positions, and historical awareness, and I wanted to make a course that integrated as much as possible, including the military narrative. After all, it is difficult to study a war with minimal attention to military events. My professional training as a military historian had thus taught me that war is one of the most revealing venues through which to teach about culture, society, historical change, and contemporary assumptions about politics, race, ethnicity, gender, and national tradition.

I just finished teaching my first upper-division course on the American Civil War Era during my first semester in the tenure track. I believe that one of my greatest successes was adhering principally to a military narrative. Before we go further, though, I need to explain what this means. I dedicated only about six or seven weeks (in a fifteen-week-long course) to the actual war. Naturally, military events did not influence the first month dedicated to the coming of the war. But military history did largely drive the remainder of the course, including Reconstruction. How? Rather than discussing the intimate details of military campaigns in isolation, I emphasized how they continually influenced the broader course of the war. Indeed, as Lincoln said in the Second Inaugural, “the progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends,” I argued that the evolution of military events helped create the environment for the war’s great social, political, and cultural revolutions.

Adopting the idea of “military contingency” (see Gary Gallagher, The Union War), I suggested that military events shaped the way Americans—northern and southern, African American and white—acted and responded to the war. In this way, I was still able to teach the crucial roles that agency and activism also played in shaping the conflict. Just as we cannot study and teach military history isolated from its societal influence, so we also cannot teach human action isolated from broader wartime conditions and events. This is certainly what the professional field of Civil War history has attempted to do for 25 years. The effort to collapse the Civil War home front and battlefield into a single, mutually-inclusive arena has been one of the great triumphs in the scholarly literature. I attempted to bring these ideas into the classroom, and I think I succeeded. I instructed on how the processes of emancipation, the reorganization of the national economy, the problem of democratic dissent during war, the definition of enemy combatants, the negotiation of gender roles, and the balancing act between state and federal power—just to name a few areas—evolved and were contingent on how events on the battlefield transpired. I emphasized that military contingency also played a role during Reconstruction in which white northerners debated the degree of military involvement in the postwar South, the rise of white insurgent groups that wielded guerrilla-style tactics to achieve political and racial ends, and the response from African American paramilitary militia units comprised and led, in some cases, by veterans of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) to protect the constitutional promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

My course was/is nothing revolutionary, and probably reflects how most people teach the Civil War. I tried to show that military history matters, that it influences broader developments, and that it is not merely an exercise in strategy and tactics. Basically, I tried to introduce in the classroom tenets of “War and Society,” guided by elements of the “new cultural military history.” This is how I define my own work, and now how I define my upper-division courses as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *