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

By Colby, Robert | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

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


Colby, Robert, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War * Edited by Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang * Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018 * xiv, 304 pp. * $48.00

For years, historians have clashed over the relevance and boundaries of the Civil War's military history. Students of armies and their actions insist upon their centrality to the conflict's course, experience, and outcomes; detractors deride "guns and trumpets" narratives as overly myopic. In Upon the Fields of Battle, however, Andrew Bledsoe and Andrew Lang reject this as a false dichotomy. With Civil War scholarship increasingly incorporating "new military history" and "war-and-society studies," traditional military histories and those investigating the war's broader societal impacts have, they argue, become all but indistinguishable. The volume's dozen essays represent Bledsoe's and Lang's U. S. Grant-like urging to the rival camps to "let us have peace." "Traditional military history now relies on the methods of war-and-society studies just as much as the latter rely on the methods of the former" (p. 7). Moreover, as the contributors collectively convey, nineteenth-century Americans scarcely distinguished between the battlefield and its societal reverberations. Why, then, should those who study it?

The essays approach scholarly divisions in a number of ways. Earl Hess's state of the field essay on the one hand critiques military history's stagnation while on the other defends its relevance and offers hope for revitalization through the precise sort of blended scholarship exemplified by the volume's subsequent offerings. Jennifer Murray, meanwhile, mixes traditional military history with an analysis of nineteenthcentury understandings of warfare to explain George G. Meade's failure to cripple Robert E. Lee's army post-Gettysburg-and why contemporaries deluded themselves in expecting that outcome. Bledsoe's own essay demonstrates the importance of including personalities and contingencies within what can otherwise be antiseptic operational histories in dissecting Braxton Braggs failure to smash a federal force during the Chattanooga campaign.

Other essays expand the ranks of those meriting inclusion in military histories. Kenneth Noe's examination of weather during the Peninsula Campaign emphasizes nonhuman actors' salience, while John Hennessy shows how Fredericksburgers endured expanding conceptions of legitimate violence that an intensifying conflict made, in one participant's words, "natural and unavoidable" (p. …

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