Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.44.02 AMYesterday I came across this post on Kevin Levin’s blog and could not resist a little walk down the road to snarksville. Kevin had posted an excerpt by Civil War historian Earl J. Hess in a recent issue of Civil War History lamenting the dearth of knowledge concerning “traditional” military history when it comes to Civil War genre scholarship – in particular: memory studies. He is what Dr. Hess had to say:

In addition, despite the appearance of some top-quality memory studies by Carol Reardon, Brian Craig Miller, and Kevin Levin, a number of examples of this genre exhibit poor scholarship. Unfortunately, it is easy for a graduate student to research postwar newspapers and throw together a pale imitation of David Blight’s book. The most serious weakness is that the author, when writing the obligatory chapter or two about the war as background to their main effort, cannot get the larger story right. When encountering such manuscripts while reviewing them for university presses, I often compile a list of factual errors about the conflict, in addition to many conceptual errors about their subject. Ironically, many of these memory studies are focused on individuals whose sole claim to fame is that they commanded large armies in the field. Yet, the authors of these studies know next to nothing about what the general in question actually did during the war, and they know even less about how traditional military historians have interpreted his career. (pp. 391-92)

With my usual flair for biting one-liner commentary I noted that “graduate students throwing together a pale imitation of Blight’s book is so ten years ago.” But in all seriousness, considering the growing body of brilliant scholarship published over the last decade or so, I was disturbed by Hess’s dismissive comment. I also found the notion of the “traditional” troubling. Whenever I hear that word associated with scholarship, in the sense that one must adhere to something set and unchanging, I imagine a scholar mired hopelessly in analytical muck. Like many of my colleagues, some of whom study military history, I think this problematic “traditional” word should go away. if anything it suggests a lack of change. Let’s face it, abiding by the traditional in history scholarship is entirely ahistorical.

What do you think?

With compliments,


The Americanist Independent

4 thoughts on “Traditional.”

  1. “Traditional” is a really problematic, ill-defined word. I appreciate Kevin pointing out that Hess doesn’t really address what a historian would have to learn and understand in order to be versed in so-called “traditional” military history. And of course there have been many, many great Civil War memory studies since 2001!

    During grad school my classmates and I were criticized for using the word “traditional” without defining its meaning, and I generally stay away from it in my writing unless I’m prepared to give a long explanation for why a person, place, or thing is “traditional.”

    1. To me, traditional implies the absence of change or revision…and that is precisely what we as historians do. I think what Hess, who is after all, an esteemed scholar, would have us do is have a general understanding of the military before we write about military subject. Like Al mentioned above, this is a war with which we are dealing. But I am still troubled by his dismissive tone.

    1. I agree with you Al, my issue here is that Hess is dismissive of a great body of work. I think we can be generally conversant in things military, such as knowing the difference between…let’s say a flank attack and a frontal assault, or the command structure of an army. But this idea of “traditional” rubs me the wrong way. It suggests that we need to be wedded to a particular type of scholarship before we can go on and write history from any number of perspectives. I, for example, write about US Grant all the time. I would hardly call myself a military historian. And I do not plan on becoming one before I write about Grant again.

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