Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 2

Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 1

cwclassroomPart one of this two part post garnered a lot of reactions on several Facebook forums. Some comments spun off into tangents and irrelevant topics of debate but for the most part, Peter Carmichael’s perceived words and Kevin Levin’s additional comments met a lot of criticism from Re-enactors. I want to take this moment to point out that the previous post did highlight a few limitations that most Re-enactors have in regards to history. I leveled criticism at presumptuous Re-enactors that give misinformation about the war and its causes, but at the same time, I highlighted areas where Re-enactors are terrific assets to Civil War education. In this post, I want to turn the attention towards the rift among academic historians and where the public, and Re-enactors, fit into that argument.

In the recent debate over Civil War battle re-enacments and Civil War Academic Historians, Brooks Simpson summed up the academic rift among Historians in one paragraph. He said:

I happen to think such whining is exactly that. It even takes place within the world of Civil War academic scholars, where some people who have focused on issues of race, class, and gender pride themselves as being more serious scholars than those who focus on politics, or, for goodness’ sake, military operations, which, of course, should be set aside in an examination of war (sarcasm rarely comes across well online). I don’t have much patience for that sort of snobbery, either. I’m amused that some political historians think I do too much military history, while some military historians think I don’t do enough and that I’m an uninformed interloper. I do what I do, period. (His emphasis)

Reading those lines reminded me of a wonderful article by historian John A. Lynn entitled “The Embattled History of Academic Military History” (pdf here) [1]. In his article, Lynn addresses, in detail, the academic rift Brooks alludes to. I pointed out the “battle lines” in Part 1, though it bears repeating with more emphasis. Academic historians are divided over emphasis of study. Some historians, namely Academic Military Historians, tend to focus on military operations/strategy and politics. Other Historians place more emphasis on race, gender, and class, or as some Historians term it, The Holy Trinity of History. Lynn points this division out more poetically.

Military history has never been a popular specialty among academics; on the contrary, it has always been something of a pariah in U.S. universities. We used to be condemned because we were believed to be politically right-wing, morally corrupt, or just plain dumb. One of my friends at Illinois snipes that “Military history is to history as military music is to music” and inquires if military historians write their first drafts in crayon. But from bad we have gone to worse, much worse, and the flow of historical fashion is very much against us and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future.

The study of history within the university is fundamentally, though I hope not fatally, flawed at this time. To be sure, all intellectual pursuits follow fashions that change over time. Therefore, to say that history is caught up in a certain trend is in itself not saying a great deal. The difference is not so much of kind as it is of degree; current fashions in the study of history are more self-righteous and intolerant than they have been for generations, and also more bizarre. For one thing, historical discussion is now intensely theoretical. Whereas historians in the past were prone to borrowing theoretical underpinnings from political science and sociology, today they are more likely to import much from anthropology and literary studies. Concepts generated by literary and linguistic scholars seem particularly embarrassing in the study of history because they undermine the value of evidence and conclude that documents cannot actually tell us about reality but only about the author of the document. This “linguistic turn” may be fine when approaching a novel or a poem, but it is usually malarkey when applied to the war archives. It also seems that novelty takes precedent over importance nowadays. This quest for novelty encompasses both a desire for the new with that other meanings of the word novelty , “A small article, such as a trinket.” When the criteria of value is newness in a field studied by a great many people for a long period of time, historians seemed forced to exalt the trivial or tangential, since all the important stuff has already attracted somebody’s attention. Often the claim is made that the seemingly marginal leads to valuable conclusions about the clearly central. To be sure, things are interrelated, but it is easier to step down to the lesser from the greater than it is to climb up from the minor to the major. At each layer of trying to generalize from the minor example one has to pile theory and speculation upon one another until it is a bit like someone trying to reach the ceiling by erecting a stack of books. You may get that high, but you will be awfully shaky when you do. (My Emphasis)

To my prejudiced mind, this exaltation of theoretical complexity, novelty, and the all-too-frequently trivial are signs of disillusionment and decadence within the historical profession: disillusionment with the possibility that historical knowledge might actually influence the real world and decadence in a desire to be at least intellectually entertained by a study which is now deemed essentially useless by many of its own practitioners. In lieu of the possibility of importance, the promise of amusement will have to do. Those forms of historical studies which are still held by the outside world to be of concrete value – political, diplomatic, and military history, for example – are precisely those rejected by the “cutting edge.”

In this environment, I have seen amazingly questionable stuff pawned off as substantial. In a job search for someone in the “new cultural history” my colleagues brought in a finalist who promised to analyze the political opinions of Huguenot refugees in New York by the turnings on chairs they crafted. To me, it was a classic case of piling up speculation upon speculation to get from the subtle differences in chair spindles to an entire weltanschauung . One of my colleagues walked out of the room with a look on his face that can only have mirrored St. Bernadette’s expression at Lourdes after her first vision. Turning to me he gasped, “He put the whole world in a chair!” I felt duty bound to remind this bedazzled friend that chairs were really designed to accommodate asses, not worlds

I do love that last line. I highlighted one part in particular of Lynn’s article because it rings too true. I have heard, more than often, historians express their disinterest in battle strategy, operations, and maneuvers while maintaining that it does not develop any deeper understanding of the war. I mean, Heaven forbid if we focus on warfare while studying a war. Remember Kevin Levin’s statements in part 1?

One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. (My Emphasis)

The “tough questions?” I think it’s easy to figure out what side of the division Kevin falls on. Granted these are hot topics and subject to trend. Lynn spends several paragraphs analyzing publications, and The American Historical Review’s preference for the “new holy trinity.” He also focuses on the History Department trends across the country. The elitism of “cutting edge” historians or as Brooks Simpson describes it, “the snobbery,” does create hostility towards those historians that focus on what Lynn terms as things of “concrete value,” (i.e.political, diplomatic, and military history). Precisely because it is rejected by the cutting edge. So where does the public fit into all this?

GACAs Brooks pointed out, the public seems to have a preference for the military and political value of history. The “snobbery” of elitist historians chalk this up to a mindless appetite for gore. Perhaps there is some truth in that. Maybe even Peter Carmichael was right in his belief that battle re-enactments turn war into a spectator sport. Given the grandstand bleachers at the GAC’s 150th Gettysburg re-enactment, Carmichael may very well be right. But I choose to appreciate the value of military history on every level. That includes strategy, operations, and tactics down to the very micro examination of how a soldier fought and why he fought that way. That is why I re-enact. To achieve some small measure of experience and to adapt to a particular schema. To explore the difficulties of covering ground while staying in tight formation. My academic study of war however, goes beyond the simplified picture of re-enacting. My particular interest, to shed light on me, is an examination of the culture of soldiers and how that impacts their preferred way to fight wars. I tend not to chalk up every act of violence towards black soldiers in the Civil War to “racism.” Though I certainly do not disregard it. I try to think about specific cultural issues, not only in race but also in the manner of fighting and reaction. But one thing we must never do, when studying war, is to overlook the examination of Battle. For battles are what truly separates periods of war from other moments in time. I am reminded of an earlier post of Kevin’s.

Some of you know that while I enjoy visiting battlefields I am not preoccupied with tactical details.  I do not give much thought to the alignment of units or try to nail down exactly where they were. Give me an overall sense of what happened and I am good to go.  I’ve never given much thought to Second Manassas beyond the strategic level; in fact, this was my first time on that particular battlefield.

To watch John lead a tour is to watch a masterful storyteller, who has thought deeply about what the battlefield has to teach us.  He moved seamlessly between the strategic and tactical levels as well as the political implications of the campaign as it unfolded.  He even asked the group to reflect on questions related to memory.

We stopped at places like Brawner’s Farm, the unfinished railroad, and Chin Ridge and John went into great detail about the action that took place there.  John, however, didn’t simply describe the action that took place there and share first-hand accounts, he explained why doing so is important.  He suggested that we need to engage in a little imaginary discipline and understand that the ground under the soldiers feet at any given moment constituted the entirety of the battle.  This was a revelation to me.  I’ve always remained detached from this perspective since I was only interested in the larger picture, but for the first time I was able to see the battle as a collection of more localized encounters that were self contained for the men involved. How the broader battle might unfold is irrelevant from this perspective.  What matters is maintaining formation, holding ground, and looking after the man next to you.  The result was a personal connection to a battlefield that I have not experienced anywhere else.

After reading this post I believe Kevin is answering his own tough questions and developing a deeper understanding of the war. He is not only studying aspects of race, and those big broad questions, but those small minutia details. What soldiers thought, what hey held dear and how they fought wars come to light as Kevin crosses the field. We should follow his example to answer those “tough questions,” whatever they may be.

[1] John A. Lynn, “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 61, No. 4, (Oct. 1997) pp. 777-789.

6 thoughts on “Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 2

  1. Rob,
    As you know, though I do work at one of the largest Civil War battlefields, my interest in Civil War history leans toward the social implications. That being said, I do agree that generally, military history necessitates the study tactics, strategy, politics of command, etc. From my perspective (and I’ve not really delved into the broader argument between living historians and academic historians, other than my own observations and musings), the issue with these issues in academic history in relation to the Civil War is this: IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE! Not only that, IT’S BEEN BEAT TO DEATH! I don’t believe that there is a period of United States history as extensively studied as the Civil War period. I mean, we are to the point that academic military historians of the Civil War publish books that openly admit that their book contains nothing that could not be found elsewhere.
    For instance, Steven Woodworth’s Six Armies in Tennessee: “The purpose of this book is to provide a narrative synthesis of the entire campaign and a new and thoroughgoing analysis based on both the mountains of information that other historians have turned up and on the original sources. It may not present readers with any particular detail that could not be found somewhere in the voluminous and sometimes contradictory published literature pertaining to these events, but it should give them a better overall grasp of the broad sweep of the action in these momentous campaigns.” He admits that this is nothing new, and that he’s turning over used soil. Don’t misunderstand, I think that this book is valuable for bringing the war to the public, but it’s scholarly merit, in my opinion, is questionable, and this is about a campaign that pales in comparison to the avalanche of research that has been published about Virginia, Gettysburg, or even Vicksburg.
    Now, I do believe that military history is necessary and valuable. War often at least shapes public opinions, involves numerous perspectives about politics and society, and sometimes literally carves new nations out of existing ones. With the Civil War, however, these issues have been mulled over many many many times, and really all you are left with are the inconsequential minutia (such as what size horseshoe General Thomas’s horse wore on it’s back left hoof) and the byproducts of war that intermingle military history with other fields of history, such as the experiences of soldiers and bystanders (which I believe are social issues) and environmental implications.
    Also, I do agree with you that re-enactors have the potential to play a crucial role in connecting the public with history and heritage, but not when they are engaging in revisionist history and not when their focus is the minutia. In my opinion, minutia must be tempered with broader social concerns for the time, which then, I believe, lead into discussion of concerns in our time.

    • Hello Jonathan. Dr. Van Sickle and I were just talking about your narrative “reports.”

      I agree with the sentiment of “its been done” and “beat to death.” But at the same time, new information emerges that bring to light new understandings of “battle.” For example, Edwin Coddington’s “Gettysburg” is the staple of work. However, Stephen W. Sear’s narrative on the campaign provides incredible depth and perspective that differs from Coddington’s work. Then finally, Allen C. Guelzo’s new book on Gettysburg, provides even more information. Like you said however, those men admit their predecessors and yet write on. I do enjoy social history, I am practically crossing social and military history in my work. Yet I do not think social history is merely theoretical history. I think concrete value histories should not be sacrificed to theoretical work to any measure, which is by my observations, a lot of what the “rift” is over.

      I agree with you about Re-enactors engaging in revisionist history. I’ve heard it. I disagree about the minutia though. Re-enactors have a gift for the minutia, especially when it comes to gear and things such as that. Often, the public ask these types of questions because it is right there in front of them, and far more interesting than words on a page to them at least.

      • All good things, I hope lol.

        I see your point, but at the same time, the fact remains that it’s been done before. In many cases, multiple times. Yes, differing perspectives can illuminate obscure details and offer insight into differing historiographical traditions, but I feel that in this case, there are plenty of resources available already to learn about the tactics. When engaging in this type of research, how much are you really expanding knowledge and understanding, when there exist subfields of this period that are still largely untapped.

        As for the minutia, I have seen that many people are interested in the specific accoutrements. i’m just biased, I guess lol. There’s a reason I never got into reenacting; I’ve just never been that interested in that kind of thing.

        • Absolutely. Apparently your narrative form gives him great joy.

          Fair enough, but remember I am not emphasizing merely tactics. I tend to focus more on why people fight the way they fight, and how does that fit into the civil military relationship of the time.

          Working for a museum where the minutia accouterments are merely the surface layer of a depth of knowledge, I’d imagine I would be biased too. You should try it sometime, living on water and hard tack for three days provides a unique perspective.

          • Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I’ve heard some of your work, and I don’t hold it in the same category as strictly tactical history. I’m talking about some of the other works I’ve read recently, and really the field as a whole. Remember, in the first post I believe I stated that tactical history should be tempered with social or environmental or (your subfield here) history. You do that.

            By the way, are you coming to Chickamauga for the 150th programming? We’ve got some fantastic stuff on the docket.

          • Well said.

            And yes. I need to get some days lined up and look into ticket purchases and all that jazz. I am saving my personal days and some sick days for it. More than likely my ventures will be weekend based.

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