Military history *is* history… and it *is* a separate discipline

I received a fair number of hits for last week’s post about field tests of canister… and a lot of good comments (both on line here and off line in private) from folks associated with that project.  Bully!  The topic of that post was in the “red meat” section of my blogging menu.  It is the sort of subject that I like reading, researching, and writing about.  And it is the sort of subject that seem to get a lot of traffic.

That’s not to say I’m just posting to boost my page views.  Rather, I’m simply concluding that people who like reading that sort of thing are apt to click on links to my blog.  Some people like bar-b-que  for dinner.  And they will look for a BBQ joint off the highway exit.   You want brisket, a rack of ribs, or some pulled pork?   We have you covered.  You want a soup and salad?  There’s a Panera Bread somewhere down the road… thank you and enjoy your meal.

However, there always seems to be someone showing up at Taco Bell demanding a burger and fries.  I had one of those customers on Saturday.  His comment:

I guess this was one of your “throw away” posts. Nothing better to write about on this day? I find the minutia covering the number of bits in a shell or the velocity of a bullet to be trivial at best. None of this matters in the larger picture.

OK.  I guess he didn’t like the barbeque sauce. I can live with that.  But let me turn that into what those in the pop-history circles are calling “a teachable moment.”

Military history – what I deem of sufficient interest for me to write about on a regular basis – is certainly part of a larger subject we call history.  To be precise, it is a discipline within history.  There are other disciplines within that bigger subject of history, notably economic history, social history, political history, medial history… and … even… art history.  Each has a defined area.  For the most part, we can define those disciplines by the methods, practices, and conventions used within.  Yet, that is not to say each discipline is separated from the other.  Nor is it to say that there are somehow exclusive subject areas for each.  Rather, these disciplines overlap.  Sort of like this:


Again, keep in mind what defines a discipline.  It’s not the subject, but rather the methods used to study and relate the material.  You might apply any historical discipline to the subject.  But each discipline has its own rules and approaches.  In the application, a discipline might be considered a perspective.

Consider for the Civil War how this would work.  Let us take the Winter Encampment of 1864 as our subject.  That being the body of material, how best to examine it?  A pure military history approach might focus on the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac, the military operations over the Rapidan, and the daily “spy game” going on with the picket posts and signal stations.  Meanwhile, looking at the political history there are another set of highlights, in particular the ongoing saga of Meade and the Committee on the Conduct of the War.  Or maybe the political influences and divisions within the camp.

But as we study along each approach, we’d be more and more drawn to the reality that all are intertwined.  The more we’d study about the tactical movements at Morton’s Ford the more we have to bring up the political maneuverings that brought about such a tragically misguided mission.  And I could cherry-pick out other examples where social history and economic history work against the same subject body as military history, in regard to that Winter Encampment. Same with any other episode of the Civil War (or other wars…).

Such is why historians should always try to approach history with an assorted set of tools.  They should always try to look across to other disciplines for more refined and inclusive insight to the subject.   That’s my preferred approach, though I must admit it to be a difficult task at times.

Yet we need to address what makes the discipline a separate discipline.  My friend Harry Smeltzer brought this up last fall, when he wrote:

I’ll make it simple – military history to me is not history that simply involves military operations (though based on some awards given out this past year – and pretty hefty ones at that – that does seem to be a working definition for some pretty prestigious organizations.) Military history, in my opinion, at the very least reflects an understanding of  not only military conventions and doctrines of the time in question – say, the American Civil War – but also of how they fit on the developmental timeline.

I’d add to that, in order to understand those conventions and doctrines, we must frame the study using components of military science.  While I don’t want to get on you like an ROTC instructor, there’s a lot of science to the profession of arms.  In the same way economic history requires statistical analysis as a construct, military history leans on a lot of “numbers.”  And it just so happens one of those numbers to consider is indeed the count of “bits” flying out of the muzzle of a cannon… another is how fast those bits were traveling.

To that point, how fast did Emancipation move after January 1, 1863?

Answer: At the pace of the Federal army’s advance.

And what regulated that advance?  In some places the external ballistics of canister from a rifled gun.  You see that old quip about “for the want of a nail…” is not exclusive in application to military history.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Military history *is* history… and it *is* a separate discipline

  1. Good post! I know you are not adverse to a bit of heat, even better for the study of artillery history. To kind of quote “We are born ignorant, but to be stupid in life takes real work”. Comprehensive treatment of history always delves into the surrounding terrain. Again, good work, and my appreciation of such. H

  2. Excellent post. History doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You can look at it from a macro or micro level – as in-depth or high-level as you want – but all the pieces fit together. We may not be able to understand how they fit together; the people of the past often didn’t fully understand what forces were driving events. And while I may find some areas of history less interesting than others, I don’t begrudge the scholar or layman willing to take the time and effort to delve into the “minutia” which often helps provides answers to bigger questions. Further, and it may be the “history geek” in me, I find posts which discuss items such as “the number of bits in a shell or the velocity of a bullet” interesting because these are things I may not have thought about, but realize once I’ve read them that it’s something I’m glad I now know.

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