Wednesday, July 5, 2006

New Military History

Ken Noe hits the nail on the head in his comment on Eric's blog that a significant problem in discussing New Military History is that there is no accepted definition of the term. How inclusive is the term meant to be? Depending on your definition, Noe's excellent study of the Perryville campaign can probably be placed in either "camp" -- Eric has it as a traditional military study while Kevin Levin marks it as a good model of New Military History.

In my mind, NMH is defined as the attempt to broaden the examination of military history as much as possible, integrating into the narrative all manner of societal issues such as politics, economics, race, gender, class, and regional considerations. Strategy, operational movements, and tactics are not the focus of the narrative, but rather another contributing element perhaps no more prominent than the other considerations mentioned above. To me, the most representative example of New Military History is George Rable's Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!. I think I counted pages and found less than 20% of the book was devoted to a tactical overview of the fight. Of course, simply counting pages to determine relative importance is ridiculous, but it gives you some idea of where emphasis is placed.

Back to where Noe's Perryville (or the equally great Wilson's Creek history by Piston & Hatcher for that matter) study fits into the spectrum, I would maintain that the firm centerpiece of both books is what we could call traditional battle history, with other issues placed in a 'supporting role'...NMH-lite to perhaps put it crudely. Noe puts it well himself "I attempted to bring elements of the “new military history” into a traditional narrative that would appeal to academics and non-academics. I’ve been praised and criticized both for not doing more of that. Frankly, I found the traditional framework darned seductive." If NMH can be interpreted broadly enough to include these two books, then I don't believe the concept to be worthy of generalized scorn.


  1. 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 beneift 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.

  2. Hi Drew:

    Enjoyed the comments. I would just add that all of us are still trying to work out such a definition as it impacts battle narrative, so confusion is inevitable. The writers you mention all wanted to try to integrate more social history into the traditional battle narrative form, simply in hopes of understanding more about a specific ACW battle, and ACW battle as a whole, than the traditional framework usually allows. Why not bring a lot of what we've learned about the ACW experience through the new approaches into battle narrative, if and when it helps explain the subject more fully? But given that this was something of a departure, and an experiment, it's not surprising that we all did it in different ways. Piston & Hatcher, for example, wanted to know what brought those men to Wilson's Creek, while I wanted to know how the battle impacted them and others long after the two armies had left Kentucky. I love reading traditional works, but I'm always frustrated at the end if the armies simply march away--as the son and grandson of vets, I knew the story didn't end there. A "new military history" approach gave me the chance to dig more into that. I'm sure that others will come up with still different approaches. As Brett writes, there are all sorts of ways to approach a battle. Personally, I just appreciate the fact that readers (and not just academics) have been receptive generally to what I tried to do with Perryville.

    Look forward to meeting you hopefully when I speak in Seattle this spring.

    Ken Noe

  3. So, which book on Fredericksburg do you think is better--Rable's or O'Reilly's?

  4. To me, for these two books it's not a question of one being better than the other. O'Reilly has given us the most complete tactical history of the battle and Rable has covered the campaign from a broad perspective. They work together. On the other hand, if a person asked me which one I enjoyed reading more or would like to read again someday, the answer for me would be O'Reilly by a longshot.


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