Battle Histories: Reflections on Civil War Military Studies

By Noe, Kenneth W.; Rable, George C. et al. | Civil War History, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Battle Histories: Reflections on Civil War Military Studies


Noe, Kenneth W., Rable, George C., Reardon, Carol, Civil War History


INTRODUCTION

What history, I say, can ever give--for who can know--the mad, determin'd tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and little squads.--Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

Peter Svenson, in Battlefield: Farming a Civil War Battleground, concludes his reflection on war and landscape with the story of one Casper Hinkle, and his curious re-creation of tile Battle of Cross Keys, a June 1862 engagement in the Shenandoah Valley. Hinkle had previously created a sideshow attraction in the 1930s and 1940s advertised as "The Biggest Little Show on Earth." It was a miniature town set on a six-by-eight-foot plywood table with movable parts (a tiny railroad, steamboat, drawbridge, sawmill, farm, zookeeper, church organist, and other Lilliputian townspeople)--all animated by belts, pulleys, and electrical wires. In the 1960s, Hinkle, influenced by the Civil War Centennial and by the stories told by his uncle, a Civil War veteran, began a second curiosity--a miniature animated Civil War battlefield. Once completed, it measured sixty-three square feet: "Governed by a complicated timing mechanism, seven hundred toy soldiers marched and fought. Twenty miniature field pieces were wired to small charges of steel wool and black powder, producing forty-eight explosions which caused the soldiers to fall and lines of engagement to shift. A tape recording added realistic battle din." The battlefield was fascinating to children: "Pulleys and wires whirred below, cannon fired off and officers on horseback spurred forward. Regiments advanced and retreated, foot soldiers fell prostrate in fields of simulated wheat and corn or woods of green cotton." But his new project never drew the audience that the animated village had attracted. Perhaps, Svenson suspects, Casper's construction was too much of a "history lesson," too "recondite," too much of a "celebration of so violent an event." It attracted, the author speculates, not so much "wonder" but "a cool whiff of disapproval." Hinkle closed the show. The little army decamped; the tin soldiers and the battlefield on which they fought disappeared from history. (1)

Although many real Civil War battlefields have also been lost to history, among them Ezra Church, Atlanta, Jonesboro, Franklin, Island No. 10, Nashville, Battery Wagner, Front Royal, and Yellow Tavern, The Civil War Battlefield Guide leads war tourists to more than sixty-five extant sites, preserved as "hallowed ground" so that modern visitors can "visualize the waves of infantry, feel the urgency, capture for the moment the meaning of how that day changed our history." (2)

These battles have been preserved, remembered, or reconstructed in reenactments, memorials, paintings, prints, photographs, motion pictures, television programs, videos, and even computer games (Firaxis Games [R] allows you to "Command your troops! Attack from the trees to protect your brigade, rally around a General for a quicker recovery, entrench your troops as your cannons blast the hillside, and much, much more!"). (3)

The Civil War has also inspired academic and independent writers to produce approximately 50,000 books on the conflict--the good, the bad, and the myopic. The list of significant books, however, is impressive. David J. Eicher, the editor of Tile Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography, annotates more than 1,100 volumes (comprising 952,482 pages), including more than 125 selected battle and campaign studies. (4) The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research, edited by Steven E. Woodworth, includes authoritative essays on the Western, Eastern, and Trans-Mississippi theaters. The combined chapters include references to more than 350 quality books and articles focusing on the military history of the Civil War. (5)

Joseph Glatthaar judges in an essay on Civil War battlefield tactics in Writing Civil War History: The Quest to Understand that campaign and battle studies "have attracted the interest of both scholars and buffs alike over the years. …

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