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:
- In what courses would you use military history?
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.
- What is the optimum way to learn the material?
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.
- What would you like to take away from exposure to military history?
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!