Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War

By Rein, Christopher M. | Military Review, May/June 2019 | Go to article overview

Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War


Rein, Christopher M., Military Review


Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War Edited by Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2018, 320 pages

Military history occupies an increasingly difficult position, caught between academic historians who see little value for the field, (as evidenced by declining numbers of tenure-track positions for faculty with training and expertise in military history coupled with the near-ubiquitous outsourcing of courses in U.S. military history that used to be taught by highly experienced faculty in history departments but are now left to less-qualified cadres in ROTC detachments), and military professionals concerned by the diminishing stature of operational, or "traditional" military history in a field that now considers any topic with a military focus to be military history. Attempting to thread this needle are Civil War historians Andrew Bledsoe and Andrew Lang, who have assembled a fine book that appears well-positioned to bridge this divide. A foreword by Gary Gallagher, a staunch defender of the war's military history who reminds readers that "the Civil War was preeminently a military event," and a brilliant essay by Earl Hess who argues for the continuing importance and relevance of operational history, is worth the purchase price.1

But this book is actually aimed at demonstrating the incredible richness and diversity of the "new" military history for fellow academics who might not appreciate the field's value and to also "encourage our colleagues to don the uniform of a military historian"2 Altogether, it makes a fair sally upon the entrenched resistance to military history within the academy but, like many assaults during the war itself, it may be more of a "forlorn hope" in terms of rehabilitating the field in the eyes of those who continue to dismiss its relevance. Apparently frustrated with the field's dilution and diminishing stature within the academy, professional military colleges are already establishing their own doctoral programs, likely to the detriment of both academic and professional institutions and the larger society they both serve. Thus, works such as Upon the Fields of Battle that attempt to bridge this gap and "save" military history within the academy have a much greater significance than might otherwise be apparent.

After Gallagher's framing analysis, built upon his and coauthor Kathryn Shively Meier's 2014 essay, "Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History," the book is divided into three sections.3 Starting with "Considerations," it includes the editors' introduction and Hess's call to "reintegrate traditional military history in its rightful professional place," especially the observation that, despite the passage of 150 years, we still haven't resolved all of the important questions about the war itself, as his recent work on the impact of the rifled musket attests.4 The clearest parallel to Hess's significant revision of our understanding of the war comes at the beginning of the next section, aptly titled, "The Contested Battlefield" In his essay, drawn from his larger forthcoming work on the impact of weather on the war, Ken Noe offers a reappraisal of George McClellan's performance during the Peninsula Campaign, arguing that unprecedented and unconquerable wet weather was as responsible for the general's "slowness" as any inherent personal character traits. If Noe's well-supported analysis is accepted, then McClellan may be the next general to have his professional reputation reevaluated, as has happened with Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and, most recently, Braxton Bragg.5 Noe observes that "integrating environmental history into the sectional conflict demands interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary conversations with meteorologists, soil engineers, and other scientists, as well as other historians. Yet the effort will be worthwhile if it helps us better understand what really happened on those bloody-and often muddy-hallowed grounds"6

The next essay in the section demonstrates that Noe's talents extend from researching and writing to mentoring and training graduate students. …

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