Friday, September 23, 2011

Military History is Worth Studying, Jim McPherson edition

Recently I was flipping through James McPherson's (of Battle Cry of Freedom fame) Drawn By the Sword, a collection of essays on the Civil War.

They run the normal gamut -- what caused the war, how it was fought, why we remember it, etc.  What really jumped out at me, though, was his discussion of why the North Won/Why the South lost.

He contrasts intrinsic explanations for Southern Defeat, which focus on Confederate weaknesses -- the South's relative lack of industry, it's disunity, it's poor leadership -- with extrinsic explanations of Southern defeat, which include Union Strength -- Union Strategic superiority, Lincoln's Leadership, Northern Industry, Northern manpower etc.  Ultimately, though, he finds that even the more convincing explanations -- Lincoln's Leadership, Union Material superiority, whatever -- are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Union victory.

As he goes on to say, the sufficient condition for Union victory is battlefield success.  Lincoln, a good plan, strong industry and superior manpower were all necessary, but in the end it really did come down to what happened at Gettysburg, or Chattanooga or outside Atlanta.

This is a point that he made implicitly in Battle Cry of Freedom by drawing our attention to these battles as pivotal points in the war.  Here he makes the point explicit -- victory hinged on the outcome of batttles, particularly several decisive ones.

This makes the study of those battles not just a fun exercise for hobbyists, but a crucial part of understanding the war.  This does not mean that we must study these battles like hobbyists are wont to -- Chancellorsville is not simply a story of Lee and Jackson's geniuses but a very complicated tale of miscommunications, mutual mistakes and bad intelligence.  Battles cannot be reduced to generalship, but so much really did hang on how Meade deployed his reserves at Gettysburg, or Thomas holding the line at Chickamauga.

Perhaps the general public does not need to hear this.  But from my limited exposure to academic historians, there are quite a few in the Academy that do.

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