Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eww, Military History?

There was a recent discussion on one of the Civil War reenacting boards I read that asked about reenacting's and reenactor's reputations in academia. Now, there were the standard responses that living history should be taken more seriously because the physical experience of soldiering is something that cannot be experienced in a library (which, having done a bit of reenacting, I might be inclined to agree with), and that the sensory experience connects with the visitor in ways that books cannot (which, as a NPS interpreter I have to admit is the case). And for these reasons, living history (which I feel is distinct from the typical "sham battle" reenacting) is a quality tool that can be used by both academic and public historians to enhance public education.

But, straddling as I am with legs on both sides of the fence, I draw the line between the interpretative technique of "living history" and battle "reenacting" for one reason: battle reenactments haven't moved forward with military history. By and large those that participate in battle reenactments have not moved "beyond the battlefield" to understand how the military experience meshed with society, culture, and politics. Reenacting, to my mind, takes a beating from academic historians for the same reason that academic military historians are sometimes viewed with mistrust by some of their colleagues: there aren't great lessons to be learned in the minutia of military actions. Since the coming of social history, women's and African American studies, and a host of beneficial historical fields since the 1960s, academia has justly seen pure military history as an exercise in historical self-gratification, one that serves only the historian. But this is not new; it was being identified even by some veterans of the Civil War themselves. One of my tours this summer at Chickamauga dealt with noted advocate of racial equality and Lt. in the 105th Ohio Infantry, Albion Tourgee. In the unit history of the 105th, he commented on just this same thing...
The causes from which events result are often of greater consequence than the events themselves. Nations and peoples, like individuals, act always from motives; and collective motives, like personal ones, may be either good or bad. ... It is because of this that the comparative importance of historical events depends very little on their physical extent, but almost wholly upon the motives of the actors or the sentiment they represent.
The who-shot-who doesn't matter when there are the deeper issues that brought the belligerents onto the field in the first place to be explored. Today's academic military historian must make the case -- to both the university publishing houses and to their various departments -- that they reach beyond the battlefield and connect military events to broader trends in society, culture, politics, economics, etc. (it is for this reason that I identify myself as a social historian of the military). In Tourgee's terms, they have to examine those motives for which men went to war. Of course, Tourgee had thought that this would have come about much sooner. He didn't foresee how much the Lost Cause movement's focus on the battlefield would delay the onset of this broader military history that has only come in the last 25 years. He believed it would come much sooner. Nevertheless, he was correct in his observations and predictions on the eventual direction of military history...
History, in the past, has concerned itself with aggregations and events. It has told us how
"The King of France, with twice ten thousand men,
Marched up the hill, -- and then marched down again."
The history of the future will be more concerned to know why the "twice ten thousand" followed the crowned braggart "up the hill," than in the reasons that inclined them to march "down again," -- it will deal with the causes rather than with events.
Reenacting has not followed the academy into the "history of the future" or the "new military history." Reenactors are understood at large as gearheads, drillheads, and consumers of tactical trivia. Is that a fair judgment on everyone in the community? No. Does it apply to the vast majority? I think so. When reenactors start dealing intelligently "with the causes" (i.e. consuming the latest trends in academic scholarship, not cowboying your own explanations for why men fought the war) "rather than with events;" when they start asking "who" and "why" instead of "what" and "how" then they will start to get a place at the academic table. Until then, they are a relic of an earlier academy.

The photo is of yours truly (right) and fellow author Chris Young (left) doing living history at Chick-Chatt earlier this summer. He as a regimental adjutant and I a line officer. Ain't we dandy!


Kendall said...

Guys, I enjoy your blog. I have to comment on this particular one that I couldn't agree more with you on your main points. I am a private school history teacher and have an "ABD" degree (ended up with an MA in 19th c. US). Sham battles are just that - a sham. I always refer to myself as a living historian - I only participate in NPS weekends and a couple of first person events each year. Too many mainstream reenactors put too much emphasis on their hidden beer coolers and too little time researching. Starting my LH hobby late in life as a Federal, I recently joined a CSA campaigner group in part because there is so much more interesting material culture research to work up.

Keep up the good work.

Kendall Mattern

Dan said...

I am curious about your remark that the Lost Cause interpretation is responsible for keeping Civil War historiography focused on the battlefield for too long. In reading Northern regimentals, it seems that most of them were just as focused on military events. So how did you arrive at the Lost Cause interpretation as the real culprit?

Patrick Lewis said...

Blight (among others) would argue that the Lost Cause cultural campaign to divert attention from the divisive causes of the war as well as some of its less pleasant aspects by focusing on the battlefield and especially on the war in the East affected northerners. They sold the plantation myth and the focus on the battlefield hard, and the war-weary (and reconstruction-weary) north bought it during the 1880s and 90s. Therefore during that wave of veterans reunions and sectional reconciliation the northern focus on the shared sacrifice on the battlefield, the shared "national" trauma of white men, Blue and Gray promoted the "reconciliationist" and "white supremacist" legacies of the war while obscuring the "emancipationist" one.

So while some northern regimental may focus on the "shared trauma" of the battlefield (particularly the later ones, some of the early ones are more direct in blaming slavery, calling out the South, etc) there was a concerted effort by southern memory makers to shape the war narrative in that way.