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New Military History: My View

In three interesting posts, Kevin Levin, Eric Wittenberg, and Drew Wagenhoffer have weighed in on New Military History. I posted my feelings on the subject on all three blogs, and I thought it might be interesting to share my thoughts on my own blog as well. The following few paragraphs are my comments, verbatim:

Drew, Kevin, and Eric,

I'm crossposting this comment across all three of your blogs since you've all brought the discussion of New Military History up. I tend to agree with Timothy B. Smith, the author of both Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg and an historiographical look at Shiloh Battlefield. He also happens to be a Shiloh Park Ranger. In a Civil War Talk Radio interview with Gerry P., Dr. Smith says something to the effect that there is a place for many different types of Civil War history. He points to his mainly tactical study of Champion Hill as one of those times where it makes sense to present the battle in mainly military terms, considering that it has never before been covered in much detail. But he also points to his historiographical book on Shiloh Battlefield as an example where military events are naturally going to be found only in the background. The talk is located at


if anyone wants to go take a look.

I've made my POV on this subject known in the past, but for the benefit of any new readers, let me restate it. As I mentioned above, I think Dr. Smith takes a "common sense", middle of the road sort of view, and that's my take as well for the most part. As a wargamer and someone who is more interested in the purely military aspects of the war, I prefer books similar to Champion Hill. However, this does not mean that I do not think books such as Dr. Smith's look at the historiography of the Shiloh Battlefield are unimportant. It's just that I find them less interesting than the actual battles themselves.

It really is personal preference as far as purchasing and reading books of various aspects of the war goes. Again, this does not mean that I do not think the social history aspects of the war should be taught in schools, or that people are wasting their time by doing so. In addition, I do not object to a blending of social and military history in one book either, as many different people from Kevin to Ken Noe to Dr. Smith have all suggested. But the great thing is that there can be many different books on one battle, all focusing on different things.

One thing that I don't believe has been brought up is the feasibility of creating one book that truly covers all aspects of a story adequately. Rable's Fredericksburg book is one such example. Apparently it covers the social history aspects of the battle in great detail while skimming over the military portion (I am going by what others have said as I don't own it). It is already an extremely large book as it is. If Rable had tried to cover the military aspects in greater detail, would a single volume have even been possible? What publisher would find it profitable in today's environment to publish such a monster? If an author truly wanted to do a definitive New Military History book on a large battle, I do not see how it would even fit in one volume. Just something to think about.

The nice thing is that there are so many new books being published that I believe anyone can find exactly what it is they are looking for among the vast amount of Civil War literature out there. As Kevin mentions, it doesn't have to be a "social history vs. military history" dichotomy, but as Eric points out, there are differing viewpoints as to what sort of balance there should be. It's an interesting question, and I don't think there is necessarily a "right" answer.

Brett S.


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