Monthly Archives: February 2009

On military experience and military history

Someday, if all goes according to plan, I hope to finish another graduate degree and then spend some time studying, interpreting, and explaining how Americans made war during the Revolution.  The thing is, I’ve neither experienced combat nor served in the military.

It’s an issue that a very fine and reputable military historian, Professor Mark Grimsley, has taken up a few times on his blog.  Recently, for instance, he commented on accepting a visiting appointment at the Army War College:

Would the students — better than 75 percent of them combat veterans — really accept the idea of learning about war from a civilian professor of suburban physique, whose only military experience consisted of eight years in the Ohio National Guard?  Most students, I was pleased to discover, had no problem with this.

You can read some of Professor Grimsley’s earlier thoughts on the subject here.  Since I’ve lived my entire life in peaceful enjoyment of the liberty and prosperity that others have secured, I’m humbled by his dismissive remark about  serving “only” eight years in the Guard.  I admire those who’ve served in any capacity.  They have both my respect and my gratitude, and those who withold respect and gratitude from them make me genuinely angry.  For that reason, I fervently hope that  nobody will misunderstand what I’m about to say. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether a lack of military service is a handicap when it comes to doing military history, and whether having served is a significant advantage.  I’ve concluded that it probably makes relatively little difference one way or the other.

I don’t deny that there are certain universal characteristics of warfare that have held true in any time or place.  Some emotions and experiences may very well have been the same for a Greek hoplite as for a present-day American Marine or any other warrior.  Military service might give you some unique insight into these universals that would be difficult to get elsewhere.

But you can’t assume what these universals are, or what their limitations might be.  Maybe the sensation of being charged by a line of bayonets was the same as the sensation of being under machine gun fire.  Maybe the camaraderie around a backcountry campfire was the same as the camaraderie in a WWII foxhole.  But maybe not.  I don’t know, and without looking into it, neither does anybody else.  The soldier who endures service and combat “knows war” in the sense that he’s experienced an aspect of it for himself; he knows what it’s like to serve in whatever capacity in which he’s served, and he knows the conditions of whatever type of combat he’s encountered.  But a personal, experiential knowledge of one type of war is quite distinct from a knowledge of another type of service or combat.

Furthermore, understanding the environemt, the actvity, of “war” is only part of what should go into understanding past military conflicts.  You’re not just dealing with the distinctive atmosphere of battle or camp, but with an entirely different society that existed around the field and the armies.  The Continental soldier, the Rebel, and the Rough Rider came from different worlds, with their own assumptions and cultures.  The soldier of the past didn’t just do something different by engaging in battle.  He was something different, simply because he was born into his particular time and place.

If you’re looking for some profound insight into the past, I believe that solid historical research is still your best bet.  If you want to know what a given historical figure experienced and what he thought about it, then go to the archives and ask him.  You may indeed find that his experiences and reactions were comparable to those of his descendants.  But that’s a question to answer during your research, not a fact to assume at the outset of it.  It’s only by approaching past wars and soldiers on their own terms and without preconceived notions that we can get an accurate picture of this complex human activity that shows no signs of going away.

(Bunker Hill illustration from Wikimedia Commons)


Filed under American Revolution

Canada’s Lost Cause

Here’s an interesting story on a cancelled French and Indian War reenactment, brought to my attention by the New York History blog.  The Canadian National Battlefields Commission is calling off the 250th anniversary portrayal of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  This was the dramatic British victory that helped break French control over her North American empire.  (Here’s more coverage from a Canadian news source.)

The reason?  Quebec separatists weren’t too crazy about reenacting a battle that secured British control over Canada, and some of them threatened to use violence and turn the sham battle into an actual one.  These guys mean business.  Take it from the NBC’s head honcho: “We cannot compromise the security of families and children that would attend the event.”

One of the “hardcore” reenactors featured in Confederates in the Attic proclaimed, “There’s something in me that wishes we could really go the whole way…I’d take the chance of being killed just to see what it was really like to be under fire in the War.”¹  Alright, then.  I say let the Battle of the Plains of Abraham go forward, so this fellow can roll the dice and put his money where his mouth is.  Super hardcore.

¹Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, 1998; repr. (New York: Vintage, 1999), 16.

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Filed under History and Memory, Reenacting

Doomed to repeat it

You know what they say about those who don’t learn from history. 

Just yesterday, my American Revolution class was discussing the failed American invasion of Canada in 1775.  You know the story:  Benedict Arnold led his men on a grueling trek through the Maine wilderness, short of food and with numbers dwindling by the mile.  Finally arriving outside the walls of Quebec, Arnold linked up with another American force commanded by the heroic Richard Montgomery.  Deciding to attack the city, the Americans launched a disastrous assault on a frigid New Year’s Eve, an attack that cost Arnold a wound in the leg and Montgomery his life.  John Trumbull immortalized the tragic scene on canvas in 1786.

Clearly, Americans don’t fare well when invading their neighbor to the north.  Imagine my shock, then, when I logged onto the information superhighway mere moments ago.  It was only a short blurb, hidden innocuously in the links section of a reputable news site.  But oh, the dreadful implications that lay therein.  I copy it below:

Obama talks trade, war in Canada.”

War in Canada!  Yes, in this century! 

Doesn’t our supposedly history-savvy chief executive know how this is going to end?  Has he spent so much time poring over Team of Rivals that he’s failed to learn the lessons of the Revolution and the War of 1812?  Will he next send the navy to plunder the British coast, in imitation of John Paul Jones?  And where’s Sean Penn when you need him?

Okay, two recommendations, in all seriousness.  First, I recommend that put a little more effort into writing these link titles.  Nobody likes to see America’s top online news source with egg on its face simply because some hack thought a comma would work just as well as the word “and.”  (And yes, this means I’m aware of the actual nature of the news item.  Please save your well-intentioned suggestions that I work on my reading comprehension.  Thanks.)

My second recommendation is for you, the dedicated reader.  Get yourself a copy of Benedict Arnold’s Army, a fantastic account of Arnold’s expedition by Arthur S. Lefkowitz.  While you’re at it, stock up on all the Rev War titles published by Savas Beatie.  If we do pick a fight with Canada, you’ll need some reading material in your fallout shelter.


Filed under American Revolution

It’s not just me

In my last post I said that I found the bicentennial to be something of a fizzle compared to the build-up that preceded it.  Today I ran into an actual, honest-to-goodness Lincoln scholar in the library.  I mentioned my impression of the bicentennial to him, and he agreed with me.  I feel better now.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory

Bicentennial smoke clears

Yesterday wasn’t what I expected.  I’m a huge history buff, I used to do curatorial work in a Lincoln collection, and I teach at a college named for him.  It should have been a big deal for me. 

Strangely, though, it wasn’t.  I woke up, taught a class, read, and went out for some seafood and a movie.  It was, in truth, one of the least Lincoln-saturated days of my life.  Feeling a little guilty that I didn’t celebrate with gusto, I decided to see how some of the more prominent history bloggers spent their bicentennial. 

Samuel P. Wheeler was probably the busiest, heading to the Empire State for a whirlwind speaking tour.  Kevin Levin indulged in snacks, games, and vintage Lincoln films.  “Bah!  Humbug!” muttered Dimitri Rotov at Civil War Bookshelf as he snuffed out the light on Bicentennial Eve.  Successive visits by the Ghosts of Centennial Past, Bicentennial Present, and Sesquicentennial Yet to Come left him unmoved.

I think the main reason I didn’t make an effort to party hard was plain and simple burnout.  The history community has been up to its armpits in Lincoln for quite a while now, getting ready for the big day that technically kicked off a whole year ago.  It was like seeing a shopping mall decked out with Christmas decorations in the middle of October.  By the time December 25 finally rolls around, you’re a little numb to it.

So yesterday I felt like a kid who’s finished opening his gifts on Christmas morning—all that anticipation, and then after a few frenzied seconds it’s over, and you remember that it’s back to school in a few days.

Still, as long as it meant more than the presents and decorations, it was well worth celebrating.

(Image from the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana)

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web

Lincoln at 200


“I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end.  If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything.  If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

—Lincoln quoted in Francis Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House.

(Photo taken by Alexander Hesler in 1860, from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

Jumping the gun on bicentennial commentary

Only two days to go, but those eager beavers who write for news sites just couldn’t wait any longer.  MSNBC asks the experts why we can’t get enough of this stuff, while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. looks at Lincoln and race.  And I’ll bet we haven’t even seen the tip of this iceberg.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory, History on the Web

Library of Congress Lincoln exhibit

If you want to get a look at some of the goods the Library of Congress is trotting out for the bicentennial, then check out this news story.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites

Lincoln bicentennial in East Tennessee

If you want to do something to celebrate the Lincoln bicentennial on Feb. 12 but you can’t make it to Hodgenville, Washington, or Springfield, don’t despair.  If you’ll be within driving distance of the Cumberland Gap area, why not attend the special program at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum?  “Let Us Praise Famous Men” is a presentation on Lincoln in films by Dr. Liz Murphy Thomas of the University of Illinois-Springfield.  There will be two showings, one at 10:00 A.M. and one at 4:30 P.M.

While you’re there, you can scope out the museum’s fantastic Lincoln-Civil War collection and see the special exhibit on Lincoln in memory.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Tinkering with categories

I’d like to humbly direct your attention to a bit of housekeeping.  One of the interesting things about a blog is the fact that it’s organic.  It grows along with its writer, and as you feel your way through it, you’re able to go back and make adjustments from time to time.  I’ve found it necessary to make one now. 

For some time, I’ve had a “Museums” category that I think I’ve neglected a little.  Given my background in museums, I’d like to explore public history subjects more extensively, but it seems to me that the “Museums” heading is too narrow to encompass some of these topics, such as historic sites and preservation.  I’ve accordingly replaced it with the more inclusive “Museums and Historic Sites.”

I’ve also decided to eliminate the awkward “Battlefields” category.  It was a sort of catch-all heading for posts dealing with military history sites.  I’m re-assigning most of these posts to the new “Museums and Historic Sites” group, where they belong.  “Battlefields” posts that don’t fit there will remain under their other designations—American Revolution, Civil War, and so on.

I realize that most of you could’ve done without this explanation, but I’m rather obsessive-compulsive, and it sure made me feel better.

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