Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review - "Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War" by Bledsoe & Lang, eds.

[Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War edited by Andrew S. Bledsoe & Andrew F. Lang (Louisiana State University Press, 2018). Cloth, notes, index. 320 pp. ISBN:978-0-8071-6977-3. $48]

What has been termed "traditional" military history (i.e. the study of war-related national politics and diplomacy, generals and soldiers, strategy, operations, battles, weapons, tactics, logistics, and the like) reached its highest prominence and acceptance among academic historians during the 1960s only to be mostly replaced over the ensuing decades by the work of scholars with professional interests grounded in the social and cultural aspects of the American Civil War. Today, this so-called "New Military History" that emerged during the 1970s has itself been largely subsumed by the "War and Society" label (after all, how long can any approach continue to be called "new" decades onward)1. In Part I of Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War contributing editors Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang join military historian Earl Hess in discussing this evolution in Civil War studies and proposing to their readers how military history topics might (and should) be reintegrated into the academic scholarship. Hess in particular laments the many misconceptions their colleagues still have regarding military history and suggests that the oldest approach to studying the Civil War actually "has the most potential for future work." His essay backs this statement up by presenting many new avenues through which historians can use their unique professional training to "revitalize'"the role of military history in the academy.2 Hess, Bledsoe, and Lang together forcefully argue for a dismantling of the persistent barrier existing between traditional military history and War and Society studies. With each body of scholarship borrowing useful elements and methods from the other, there is no compelling reason for the division to remain.

Kenneth Noe begins Part II, which comprises five essays exploring "The Contested Battlefield." For the most part, western culture trains us to believe that truly exceptional individuals can overcome almost any obstacle along the way to achieving their goals, and those that allow roadblocks to deter them are said to be engaged in excuse-making. Kenneth Noe's examination of the effects of poor weather conditions on the 1862 Peninsula Campaign is an interesting case study of this idea, with most modern observers seeing McClellan's persistent complaints about rain, mud, and terrible roads as just another excuse for his allegedly slow pace of operations. Noe's meticulous survey of atypical rainfall levels, combined with his observations regarding the Peninsula's soil composition and primitive transportation network (neither of which could hold up to heavy military traffic in such weather), invites readers to reconsider both McClellan's conduct of the campaign and the effects of weather in general on Civil War military operations. Many readers will recall Robert Krick's Civil War Weather in Virginia (which is primarily a reference tool), but Noe usefully reminds us that no comprehensive study of how weather and other natural forces factored into limiting Civil War military operations yet exists, and he persuasively argues that one is needed3.

In her piece concerning the Union pursuit after Gettysburg, Jennifer Murray (who is in the middle of writing a biography of General George G. Meade) joins a chorus of fellow historians in urging readers and fellow scholars alike to reconsider the feasibility of truly complete campaigns of annihilation. While Murray admits that Meade's pursuit was far from ideally aggressive, considering the destruction of field armies after defeat and pursuit as "extremely rare" events throughout history (a determination in itself arguable) isn't always a convincing defense. Nevertheless, Murray is surely right in asserting that armchair generals remain far too enamored with campaigns of annihilation and their expectations of Civil War generals too lofty in that regard.

Andrew Bledsoe's chapter provides a fresh look at the infamous Confederate command fiasco at McLemore's Cove during the Chickamauga Campaign. In it, Bledsoe appropriately assigns criticism broadly, finding significant fault with Bragg's orders as well as with the high-ranking subordinate generals that either bungled or intentionally disobeyed them (and sometimes both). None of that will surprise students of the campaign. What makes Bledsoe's article most interesting is the way it stresses the "language of command," explaining how its misuse directly impacted the missed opportunity in North Georgia while also showing how inconsistent and poorly worded orders were part of a more general failure among Civil War commanders to adopt a standard format for writing orders that would make intentions clear as possible to the recipient and less open to (mis)interpretation. As the chapter demonstrates, standardizing the structure of orders is something that modern armies work hard at achieving, and they have processes in place to facilitate it. General Grant's headquarters has traditionally been seen as the best performer in this regard, but current scholars are now uncovering so many glaring exceptions that it is probably more accurate to say that no Civil War army leader truly stood head and shoulders above the rest.

In addition to providing a vivid account of the bombardment of Fredericksburg in December 1862, John Hennessy effectively situates the event within the context of current limited vs. hard war debates while also helpfully informing modern discussions of the laws of war and how they affected troop conduct over the second half of the conflict. Hennessy's vivid depiction of the artillery bombardment of the city, which is characterized as initial targeted firing upon enemy military positions within the buildings rapidly escalating into massive indiscriminate bombardment in the face of stubborn resistance, could be seen as a microcosm of the larger transition of the war in the East from limited to hard war. That said, Hennessy clearly counts himself among those believing the Union war to be one primarily of restraint, citing the orgy of looting that occurred in the angry wake of the defeat as supportive of this interpretation due to such extreme behavior not being repeated again by the Army of the Potomac.

The section is closed with Brian McKnight's examination of the guerrilla war in the Border South, a hotly contested region that the author has studied at length over his career4. While those who have kept up with the expansive guerrilla war scholarship that has developed over the past decade and a half are less in need of a reminder, McKnight prompts readers to view the irregular conflict through the lenses of military, social, and local history in order to obtain a fuller understanding. He also sees successful resistance to guerrilla violence on the community level as an important and understudied aspect of the literature, which tends most often to see local civilians as either victims or facilitators.

Part III, five essays under the collective title "The Soldiers' War," urges us to continue moving Civil War soldier studies beyond army demographics and motivational/ideological investigations (as important as those areas have proven to be). In addition to attempting to integrate elements of emancipation and Reconstruction into the American exceptionalism discussion, Andrew Lang's opening chapter deals broadly with the military's role in those areas as well as the wartime occupation of the South. While the men in the ranks generally accepted the necessity of ending slavery, they were at the same time uncomfortable with the fact that abrupt social and political change was primarily occurring at the point of the bayonet. Such feelings were clearly associated with the traditional distrust among nineteenth-century Americans of standing armies and their potential for military despotism5.

Civil War desertion is a common topic of discussion and debate in the literature, but less so is the most extreme of the many possible punishments involved—execution. Kevin Levin's examination of Confederate Army executions concludes that the common soldiers, though they had strong emotional reactions to seeing comrades shot (especially when family care was the condemned's primary motivation to desert), strongly supported capital punishment as necessary to enforce discipline and deter others. On the latter point, Levin points out that any real study of execution as effective deterrence falters in the face of sparse record-keeping, particularly over the final two years of the war when desertion became a key factor feeding the collapse of Confederate armies. His emphasis on the ceremony of execution also seems apt, as the great amount of detail rendered within soldier accounts suggests that witnessing such events became deeply ingrained in the psyches and memories of observers.

Keith Altavilla's contribution targets the many factors that motivated a minority of Union soldiers to vote for Democratic presidential candidate George McClellan in the 1864 election. Among them are the perception of a failed war with no end in sight, anger at the administration's assault on dissenting voices, ineffective governance by the party in power, and starkly different views on government policies regarding emancipation and race.

Modern regimental histories never fail to emphasize the community-based recruitment of most companies, but Brian Matthew Jordan's essay surveys the "human longitude" of the 107th Ohio's heavy Gettysburg casualties. In addition to seeing the need for more research on the often crippling consequences the war's physical and psychological wounds had on veterans, Jordan enjoins historians to pay more attention to the long-term effects battlefield deaths had on soldier families, close social networks, and those very same communities that sent them to war in the first place.

Finally, Robert Glaze invites us to recall the lesser-appreciated Lost Cause stature of Albert Sidney Johnston, which was prominent in popular memory for decades after the war before being surpassed in the mythology by the first-rank triumvirate of President Davis and Virginia generals Lee and Jackson. Glaze points to Johnston's embodiment of the 'what-if' fantasy as the chief source of his appeal, with his death at the assumed moment of victory at Shiloh representing a devastating blow to a young and still vibrant republic's chances for independence and a tragic loss that made possible the rise of Grant.

In terms of possible sources of complaint, Bledsoe's essay could have used a map or two to help visualize the battlefield discussion, and many readers will undoubtedly notice that there is only one female historian in the group of contributors. The latter situation was surely unintentional, as the last thing the editors would want is to refuel the old stereotypical view of military history being a primarily male domain.

As might be expected, some of the essays are more subtle than others in drawing connections between traditional military history and other sub-disciplines of Civil War studies, but the volume as a whole very much succeeds in what it sets out to do. Upon the Fields of Battle deserves to be widely read, but it especially warrants the attention of both current and budding professional historians. Hopefully, the essays in the book will prompt them to cast aside acquired misconceptions of the scholarly value of military history and inspire them to seek points of connection in their own work.


Notes:
1 - Gary Gallagher wrote the foreword to the book. For a fuller discussion of his views see Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, "Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History," Journal of the Civil War Era 4 (Dec. 2014): 487-508.
2 - For more of the writer's perspectives on the subject see Earl J. Hess, "Where Do We Stand? A Critical Assessment of Civil War Studies in the Sesquicentennial Era," Civil War History 60, No. 4 (Dec. 2014): 371-403.
3 - Noe is currently researching "the role of climate and weather" in the war, presumably for a future book project.
4 - See also  McKnight's Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia (2006).
5 - Highly recommended follow-up reading is Lang's award-winning In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America (2017).

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