Military history and the art of setting up an argument

I’m revising a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, and one of the things I need to work on is clearly and concisely articulating from the outset what I’m trying to do in that chapter and how.  It’s a matter of putting into practice the old adage that you have to tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em before you actually do it.  In my first chapter draft I didn’t do this nearly as effectively as I should have.

Since the goal of any work of historical scholarship is to make an original contribution to what we know—or an intervention into a conversation about what we think we know—writers of history have to state what it is they’re bringing to the table.  In grant applications and paper proposals it’s the difference between life and death, but it’s important when sitting down to complete the actual project, too.  Ironically, some of the best models I’ve found of setting up a book-length historical argument come from a genre that a lot of academic historians dismiss: military history that focuses on campaigns, battles, strategy, tactics, and leadership.

Take, for example, Scott Bowden and Bill Ward’s Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign.  It’s a hefty book, more than 600 pages and very closely argued.  But it only takes about four of those pages for Bowden and Ward to explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why.  Let me note that I’m not necessarily saying I agree with the authors’ conclusions regarding Lee’s generalship in the invasion of Pennsylvania.  I’m just saying that the way they set up their book’s purpose, organization, and methodology is as clear and concise as you’re likely to find in a work of historical scholarship.

Another example is Joseph L. Harsh’s Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  In ten pages, Harsh explains how attention to Antietam has waxed and waned over the years, why the campaign matters, the approaches earlier writers have taken, and how his own approach corrects some important interpretive problems.

Maybe Antietam and Gettysburg have been the subject of so much writing over the years that these authors had to be especially conscientious about explaining what they were doing and why.  Or maybe this genre just lends itself especially well to explicit argumentation because it involves questions of contingency and individual responsibility.  Whatever the reason, those of us looking for examples for our own projects could do a lot worse.

By Captain James Hope (d.1892) (Hope Paintings at nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 Comments

Filed under Civil War, Research and Writing

2 responses to “Military history and the art of setting up an argument

  1. Simon

    I wonder if this is because military history is more binary in this regard. General A was either very effective, or not effective at all. With social and other types of history the study tends to be more nuanced. A lot of the new military history has taken this approach as well. I am familiar, but have not read either of the works you just mentioned, so my comment is not meant as a critique of Harsh or Bowden.

    • Michael Lynch

      I think that might have something to do with it. Campaign and battle studies are sometimes very oriented toward causes and effects, which might help to create very clear “fault lines” of disagreement between historians about what those causes and effects were, whether a given commander contributed to victory or defeat, and so on.

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