Framing American Military History

As a scholar and teacher of the Civil War era, I am in the midst of contributing to debates surrounding the proper place of military history in academic settings. The field’s professional journals and influential blogs have even launched an intense but necessary conversation on how best to balance military studies alongside cultural and social studies. Translating this dialogue into both my undergraduate and graduate courses on the American Civil War, I attempt to demonstrate that military history should guide any study of the period, as long as it relates directly to social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions. Military affairs thus cannot be examined absent their cultural context, and wartime culture and society cannot be evaluated without their concomitant military elements.

On a broader level, to come to terms with American history is, in large part, to deal with the national military narrative. Or at least that is how I plan to frame next semester’s course on American military history, which covers the colonial era through the current conflicts against ISIS. Although a massive chronological period, a course on military history, when taught correctly, can enhance the central themes and problems of American history. Contrary to some misconceptions in the popular realm, military history is not the celebrated study of battlefield heroism, martial passion, and faith in militarism. While these elements have to be engaged, at least in the ways that historical actors understood and implemented such concepts, military history actually, according to two recent scholars, “investigates warfare and the relationship between military institutions and the societies from which they sprang,” in an effort to focus on the military establishment and work outward to probe broader questions.[1]

This endeavor, a much more complicated process than a telling the stories of battlefield gallantry and the experience of combat, is richly rewarding and is actually related intimately to the former approaches. Indeed, based on the definition above, military history requires the scholar and teacher to engage why battlefield actions happened the way they did, how a soldier interpreted the experience of combat, and the particular ways that Americans understood their wars. In these ways, military history is really an exploration into some of the central questions of the American past: the ironic and often troubling balance between the United States’ dedication to liberty and its quest to conquer; the burden of “making the world safe for democracy,” while proposing to maintain an exceptional nation; and negotiating the increasingly murky distinctions between military actions to occasion either limited, defined objectives versus idealistic, transformational ends. Thus, the ways in which Americans have approached, practiced, and ended wars, relate to these broad themes, the effects of which have been felt, and continue to be felt, from the highest levels of command, to the home front, in the ranks, through perceptions of the enemy, within the chosen methods of combat, and even long after a war ends. Understanding the crucial relationships between military institutions and wars alongside their social, cultural, and political contexts is imperative to teaching the nation’s military narrative. To delve into the decades-old debate of whether there is an “American way of war,” to come to terms with traditional anxieties over a standing army, and, conversely, to understand why the military today is celebrated in many corners of society, is to understand what the United States was and is, and who its people were and are. Framed in this context, military history, at least in the way I understand the concept, should be regularly taught, debated, and engaged.


[1] Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 4 (December 2014): 490.

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