28 June 2007

Help from the War Historian

Last fall, I taught a course on the American Revolution. Now I know aspects of the Revolution very well; I've read extensively in issues leading up to the Revolution, in great debates regarding the intellectual origins of the Revolution, in social issues and outcomes of the Revolution, in constitutional issues before, during, and after the Revolution, in the role of slavery, slaves, and free blacks in the Revolution, the participation of Indians on both sides of the conflict, the role of women, the Revolution's Atlantic aspects, and its effects on France, Haiti, and Spanish America. So, I know a lot about the Revolution.

But of course the Revolution was also a war. You'll note that my areas of expertise on the Revolution don't include the war. So, I found myself reading up. I ended up assigning the memoirs of Joseph Plumb Martin as well as the relevant chapters in Middlekauf's The Glorious Cause--the former I intended as a look at the experiences of an ordinary soldier and the latter as a detailed discussion of various campaigns and battles. It was difficult, to say the least, and I had some students who styled themselves experts on military history (these guys knew things like thesizes of guns and the types of uniforms). So I finally had to email the good Professor Grimsley and ask about some of the details.

This led to a dialogue on why professional historians seem to know so little military history. I suggested to Professor Grimsley that I wasn't 1) willfully ignorant, or 2) hostile towards military history. My own training is in social and cultural history, with a generous dab of intellectual and political history. Military history just never came up in my graduate training and now that I'm teaching, military history hangs around my neck like an albatross.

Professor Grimsley has now asked me some questions about how a trained historian who is largely unfamiliar with problems and issues in military history might learn:
  1. In what courses would you use military history?

  2. I can think of three courses in which I need to use military history.

    The first, as Mark notes, is a gimmee: the U.S. history survey. I'm teaching America to 1848 this fall, and I'm planning a lecture on warfare in colonial North America (in all its Anglo-Indian, Anglo-French permutations, but also as an introduction to militia cultures in Anglo-America), a lecture on the Revolution (which necessarily must be only one lecture), and then two hypothetical lectures (one of which might have to be cut because of time constraints): one on warfare against Indians from 1800-c. 1850, to complement discussion on removal, and another on the Mexican War.

    The second course is, of course, the American Revolution. I usually dedicate 9 class hours (about three weeks) to the war. I need to overhaul what I did last time and probably change out the readings. (I hate to lose Joseph Plumb Martin, but I might have to.)

    The third is my graduate readings course called "Readings in North American History, 1500-1800." I would love to incorporate some readings on military history for that period. If I can get my students more comfortable with some of the themes in early American history, they might not be as at sea when they start teaching as I am now.

  3. What is the optimum way to learn the material?

  4. This is a little less clear to me. I think the best way is almost certainly seminar-style, with in-depth readings and discussions that leave the participant ready to continue teaching herself. This is how I learned to learn in graduate school, and I think a week or two would be a great way to introduce neophytes to military history. What if you started something like an NEH seminar in the summer, geared towards trained historians with little or no military history background? I would be happy to read extensively in American military history (not just for the early period but for the whole shebang)--and heck, anyone who can explain to me why the Jamestown settlers had caltrops would be most welcome. :) From this kind of intensive introduction I would be comfortable branching out on my own.

  5. What would you like to take away from exposure to military history?

  6. This is indeed unknown territory for me, but like most academics, I hate not knowing about something. I realize one can't possibly learn it all, but I would like to have enough expertise to teach comfortably. I'd like to be able to answer the questions students are most likely to ask about military history. I hope that makes sense--I'd like to be conversant though not an expert. I don't expect to do research in military history (I've got a complicated research agenda already!).

Over to you, Mark!

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At Thursday, June 28, 2007 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Clio Bluestocking said...

By military history, I am assuming that you mean the actually fighting of the war in question and the impact of that fighting the rest of society.

Finding myself in the same predicatment as yourself, the first thing I learned was that actually going to the sites of particular battles helps tremendously in understanding the hows and whys of the fighting. Beyond that, looking at maps of the area at the time, both of battlefields and transportation routes (if they are available), gives you an idea of how much a population was engaged in the fighting.

I wouldn't lose Plumb Martin completely (maybe you could use exerpts?) because demonstrates that, during wartime and especially during a civil war, tactics and gun type and supplies and transportation and even uniforms (or lack thereof) cannot be separated from all of those issues that are your field of expertise.

At Thursday, June 28, 2007 1:22:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Hmmm...I don't really know what I mean by military history. I know I mean strategy and tactics, I mean weaponry, planning, supply, training, and all that good stuff. But I think I also mean recruitment, the experiences of soldiers at all levels (officers and enlisted), that sort of thing: the stuff that one might call the social history of the military. (In my Revolution course I did talk briefly in lecture about camp followers for the British and the Americans, for example.) So I guess I mean military history with the broadest net possible.

I would hate to lose JPM too. The students really liked him. I've been reading David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing as my bedtime reading lately, and I really like it. I might also decide to use that. In conjunction with JPM, it would probably work great. I also used Sylvia Frey's Water From the Rock which has some useful discussions of southern campaigns.

Mark, any opinions on David Hackett Fischer??

I totally know what you mean about visiting battle sites. I've been to all the Boston sites--the Lexington and Concord battlefields are particularly great. I'm going to Yorktown on Sunday--I'll post pictures and what I learned!

At Thursday, June 28, 2007 1:23:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Actually, while I'm asking: has anyone read Alfred Young's Masquerade about deborah Sampson? It's on my list but I haven't gotten to it yet...I'm a big fan of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, which I have used as a way of talking about why Americans became Revolutionaries, and I'm wondering if any readers have taught Masquerade and whether or not it works in a classroom setting.

At Thursday, June 28, 2007 1:47:00 PM, Anonymous Chris Levesque said...

I tend to have the reverse problem (at least when it comes to the military history that I've studied) in that I feel adrift when it comes to social and cultural history. This frequently crops up in my Western Civilization courses when dealing with changes in art and philosophy. Luckily the online format usually gives me time to investigate things before responding to a student. I don't get put on the spot as much as someone standing in front of a class does.

Regarding sizes of weapons and bullets - I only usually deal with those in cases where they have a significant impact on the matter at hand. In the case of the American Revolution, since the miscellaneous muskets used by the colonists and the Brown Bess used by the British were both smooth bore muskets of roughly equivalent technology, does it really matter what the size of the ball was? It certainly isn't the same as the qualitative difference of French 75 mm artillery and German 77 mm artillery during World War I (the French model is famous due to its rate of fire, breach mechanism, etc...)

At Friday, June 29, 2007 8:51:00 AM, Blogger Ed said...

...."But of course the Revolution was also a war."

How in the world did we ever get to this point...where social issues and outcomes...constitutional issues before, during, and after... the role of slavery, slaves, and free blacks in the Revolution... the participation of Indians...the role of women...the Revolution's ...effects on France, Haiti, and Spanish America ... are the main component of teaching youth, whilst the fact that battles actually occurred, strategy and tactics helped determine the outcome, and military leadership matters are some strange afterthought which aberrantly pops into the mind of a lone professor, igniting debate as to how such study should be entered into?

You can't imagine how warped your world appears to those of us who survived 20+ years of education, only to learn that we had learned nearly nothing.

At Friday, June 29, 2007 10:52:00 AM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Ed, I wouldn't call my "world" warped. The Revolution I now teach is the product of two generations of scholarship--two generations in which historians realized that more happened in the Revolution than simply battles. It was a massive, cataclysmic change for *everyone* who lived in North America, and it had wide-reaching consequences for Europe and for Latin America. The difficulty arises because the outpouring of scholarship is ridiculously time-consuming to master, let alone digest and repackage for an undergraduate audience. My graduate training was instrumental in teaching me this new, groundbreaking scholarship--including the very exciting work being done on African-Americans in the Revolution (we're only touching the tip of the iceberg on how slaves and free blacks adopted and transformed the Revolution both socially and militarily). We're also on the verge, I think, of a new and incredibly important batch of scholarship on constitutional issues and the Constitution--these are hardly unimportant topics.

The weakness is that I learned very little about the military side. But I wouldn't call my concern aberrant--I think there are many historians who teach the Revolution who could benefit from, and who *want* to benefit from, the conversation Mark and I are having.

The challenge to academic historians who teach undergraduates is to make students aware of the many issues in the Revolution--which encompass all that I listed above and then some. Doing this in thirteen weeks and about 40 class periods is very difficult.

At Friday, June 29, 2007 11:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, I think, is missing the point of this debate. The idea that the American Revolution is a war didn't "aberrantly" pop into Dr. Goetz's head. The actual mechanics of the war = the strategies, materiel, elements of luck or chance = make a fascinating story that must be told and understood. But, in the end, the Americans "won" for whatever reason - be it military, diplomatic or whatever. The causes and effects of that war make for a much more important story - hence the appeal for the social, cultural, intellectual, and political currents that many historians concentrate on. What prompted the population to at least acquiesce for such a long time in the struggle and what were the short and longterm effects of the war, how it was remembered and manipulated by future generations make, I think, the real longlasting story.

At Friday, June 29, 2007 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Rebecca said...

I think maybe Ed's comment (and he can weigh back in here) shows how far some military historians and social historians have managed to separate themselves and to see one another as competing camps.

This is one of the tropes Mark has noted in the recent outpouring of journalists and *some* military historians bemoaning the death of military history, and I think it might also reflect the hostility of *some* social historians of a certain generation towards military history.

There are a lot of reasons for this divide (some of the comments at War Historian point towards the Vietnam War). Part of it, I would add, is the difficulty the first generation of social historians had in breaking into the field. Some academic historians in the 70s and 80s were very hostile towards social history as a method and towards those who practiced it, and some social historians still resent this.

These kinds of hostilities aren't good for anyone and it makes it even more difficult to teach a methodologically integrated course.

At Friday, June 29, 2007 2:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, for pete's sake, surely there is enough room in any academic discipline for varied points of view and, gasp, change and growth? It doesn't have to be like this, people.

At Friday, June 29, 2007 6:08:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Um, Anonymous, that's the point Mark and I are making.

At Friday, June 29, 2007 6:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a professor in a completely different field. However, as a student of history, particularly the military history of Virginia, there are certain elements which make learning the military history easier.

1. Maps are a must to understand supply lines and tactics. I find three different types of maps to be helpful. One shows the picture, in your case, the 13 colonies. One map shows the regional picture of supply lines and troop movements prior to the battle and after the battle. The third map shows detailed topography and landmarks that are of tactical importance.

2. Seeing the actual battlefields in person brings home the reality far more than just reading about it.

3. Learning about the personal attributes of individual geneals makes sense of tactics and actions by those generals.

At Monday, July 02, 2007 4:12:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Anonymous--I visited Yorktown this past weekend...more on that later!

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 8:40:00 AM, Blogger Ed said...

Anonymous Professor: please stop at OpenHistoryProject.org and leave any maps you can. These above all are what we are trying to collect and distribute.

the topic: Let me repeat and restate my last sentence: You can't imagine how frustrating it is to those of us who survived 20+ years of education, only to learn that we had learned nearly nothing.

And this is the problem. Each historian is free to study whatever unique deep vein of knowledge they wish to pursue. Yet their pay is to provide new generations with a certain basic understanding of how we came to be civilized. Most students have to somehow integrate those basics with everything else they learn, be it quantum mechanics, contract law, operating systems design, jazz theory, or financial forecasting.

What those students need is a very basic and wide ranging exposure to the highlights of 6000 years of struggling for civilization. And they need it delivered in a way that makes those highlights memorable. Delivering that is the task for which taxpayers and parents pay professors' salaries.

The professoriate, and their colleagues in the public schools, have forgotten those basics. A liberal education, in the sense of wide ranging exposure to historical personages and events, combined with a broad exposure to other fields, is almost extinct.

In the case of the revolution, all of the details you mention are niceties. In the end, however, Americans won because:
1) We wanted it. We were fighting for freedom and self determination, and that is a very powerful thing.
2) We had a few very remarkable leaders. Benjamin Franklin is a once-in-500-years genius; among other things persuading the French to help. John Adams dedicated his life to the idea of freedom for all. George Washington had character (and experience) rare in the history of military commanders.
All of your social histories are third order effects at best compared to these.

So, we come to the point where seniors at the nation's top 50 institutions know next to nothing of history. They can't even randomly guess that Yorktown was the culminating battle of our seven year struggle for independence. They have no familiarity with that struggle, or any clue as to what lessons should be brought forth to the war today.

We, in America, are each a King. We are equally responsible for the future. Machiavelli had a lot of good advice for a Prince who would be a good King. "A prince" he said "must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war."

A young US financier-prince would do well to know of how the Egyptians lost to the Israelis, how Walter Cronkite abdicated journalistic integrity for two generations to follow (at least), the general size of a modern brigade, how many young men lost their lives at Gettysburg and Iwo Jima, what happened at Valley Forge, and how David manged so secure his kingship. In adding to this list, I'm just not sure when I am going to get to the social issues the kids are actually being taught.

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 11:03:00 AM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Ed, I am surprised that under your 1) you say that the Revolution happened because "we" wanted it to happen, and then a few sentences later you call social history "third order."

After all, social history answers some very important questions and your number 1:

Who were the people you call "we"? They were not like us in a lot of ways and social history helps us understand that. Social history allows us to explore the motivations of people like Joseph Plumb Martin, George Robert Twelves Hewes, and Harry Washington. (If you don't know who these people are, you're missing a deeply important part of Revolutionary historiography that social history gave us.)

What did they think freedom meant, and more importantly for the Revolution, what did they think "liberty" meant? Again, social history gives us a window into these problems (and here I'm thinking, for starters, of Bob Gross's incomparable social history "The Minute Men and their World").

Why did they make the decisions they made--to fight for the Revolution, or to fight against it, or merely to acquiese to it? As you note, they had powerful ideas, and social history exposes how ordinary people engaged with and developed these ideas and how those ideas shaped their actions.

By ridiculing social history, you're ignoring thirty years of ground-breaking historiography.

If you like I can post a list of recommended readings on the non-military historiography of the Revolution. You might find it interesting and enlightening.

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 5:34:00 PM, Blogger Ed said...

Rebecca, a short note right now. Gross' book is 242 pages. If he is really good, there are 3-4 ideas that an intellectual like me will retain six months hence. If he is really, really good, there is one idea the average top tier student will retain two years past graduation.

I'm not ridiculing your research interests. What I and other education reformers try to do is point out the real needs of non-specialist students.

Happy Independence Day!!!


At Thursday, July 05, 2007 4:29:00 PM, Blogger MS said...

Anonymous wrote somewhere above, "The causes and effects of that war make for a much more important story . . ." That is a common and false assumption about many wars and a major limitation of European history textbooks I use. Something happens in the wars, and I am not talking exclusively about battles and high politics. I'll leave it to the Americanists to say how the experience of a long war affected this country, but I do not think one can properly understand Imperial Germany without some reference to its experiences in the Franco-Prussian War, even if that war lasted only a matter of months, not years.


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