Category Archives: Blogging

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.

May 1, 2015: My Sesquicentennial streak comes to an end

In late December 2010, WordPress sent out a “blogger challenge” which encouraged us towards a “blog post every day” schedule.  Yes, as content drives traffic, that sort of thing brings in advertizing dollars to the host up there in the cloud somewhere.  On my end of things, I saw that challenge as a means to sharpen and improve blog writing skills… but more importantly, and more for my own satisfaction than anything else, be able to to visibly demonstrate how I followed, observed, and participated in the Civil War sesquicentennial.

On January 1, 2011, I posted the first of many entries which focused on what happened around Charleston, South Carolina, 150 years from the date of posting.  So 37,944 hours later (that would be 1581 days, or four years and four months for those who prefer simpler figures), I am posting this one.  Over that time, I’ve put up at least one blog post each day. On a lot of days, two posts.  And on a few days, three posts.  The total for the time was 1791 blog posts, not counting this one (or two at the end of 2010 that were not “sesqui” posts).  I’m going to take a blogging-break this weekend and thus end the streak.  The Sesquicentennial is not over, as there are indeed more dates related to the war as it wound down.  But my daily posting cycle will lapse just as the pace of the war lapsed 150 years ago.

Some of those 1791 posts were simply mentions of upcoming events.  Others were trip reports and “live” blogging where I tried to give the reader a taste of what was going on out there.  Some posts were slim and thin.  And others – and I have not taken a formal count, but hopefully the majority – are “red meat” posts where I wrote about things which happened 150 years from the date of posting.  For those posts, I often sought out topics which were covered less by historians and other bloggers.  My over-arching purpose with that was to demonstrate, using our sense of time in the contemporary space, how operations during the war were greatly inter-connected with dependencies all around.  I liked taking the “simple” as presented in the general histories and showing it in natural light to expose all the “complexities” that exist in situ.

I sort of evolved the approach to “150 years ago” posts as things went along.  Early on, I think I was more commentary heavy in the content.  Later posts were heavier on the source material.  Around about mid-2012, the realization set in that I was “forcing” posts and I should return to the advice given by my college mentors – let the sources speak for themselves.  So, turning to my many, many notebooks compiled over the years, I organized things by date to have “scheduled” writing assignments.  For example, this section from January 2014:

Blog Schedule

As with any “marathon,” the key is having a solid, organized approach.  I think this really paid off in the fall of 2014, following Price’s Missouri Campaign along with Sherman’s March.  However, if I had to pick one set of posts to highlight, it would be those discussing the Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter.  In approaching that event, as with much of the story of Charleston’s Civil War, I was inspired by the late Warren Ripley.  During the Centennial, Ripley ran articles (along with Arthur Wilcox) in the Charleston News and Courier and Evening Post.  Many of those were later collected into a booklet which is still sold today.  Ripley worked under the constraint of column inches.  But the blogging format allowed me the freedom of exploring many of the “dirty details” of the siege of Charleston.  I do hope it was as entertaining to the reader as those posts were enjoyable for me to write.

In addition to the posts, I’ve worked to bring the Sesquicentennial experience by way of tweets, status updates, and streaming video.  Being able to tweet that I was standing AT a place AT a time just 150 years removed from AN event provided perspective.  At the same time, sharing my thoughts as quality speakers challenged my understanding of the war added to the experience.

But beyond the blogging aspect of the sesqui, I look back at four plus years of tours, talks, seminars, and other activities.  I can say, with pride, that I didn’t just “see” the Sesquicentennial, but rather waded in up to my neck.  To paraphrase a famous author, I know now of our Civil War because I’ve walked its fields and turned its pages.  I’ve experienced sunrises that brought light upon the ground – literally and metaphorically speaking.

Antietam 150 042

While I cannot run some “official” tally of how many sites I visited or 150ths I attended, I can say “I was there” for as much as possible.  And I hope that others who could not be there were able to gain some appreciation through what I was able to present.

As mentioned, there are still some 150ths to mention in the months ahead.  But mostly I am, as the nation was 150 years ago, about to transition my blog a bit.  There are a lot of posts that were not posted in the correct time frame.  So I have an obligation to pick those up.  And there are other story lines that I wish to explore.  But at the same time, I sense a need to return to my “base.”  There is much to write about the big guns.  Thus my notebook is filled with possible “cannon posts” for the year to come.

However, before I close any Sesquicentennial books, I do want to share some thoughts about the 150th that I’ve rolled around over the last four years.  Some have already started pointing to successes and failures with the 150ths.  I’m not about that sort of ranking.  It’s all relative to the viewers perspective.  My experience with the Sesquicentennial, as you have no doubt seen and read, was positive.  Now I feel somewhat obligated to share my reactions to that experience in a sense of closure.

Those thoughts to follow later.   For now, I’m on break.

Meerkat: “Wish we’d had this earlier for the 150ths” or “too much noise”?

You may have seen the buzz of late concerning a new app called Meerkat.  The rather lightweight app, running on an iOS device (I don’t think there is a version out for Andriod or other platforms yet), which allows the user to stream video straight through Twitter.  Right off the bat, I think you can see there would be some “good” and “bad” aspects of that capability.  If none come to mind, you might browse through the numerous live streams that were posted on Twitter. Some OK stuff there.  Some “who cares” stuff. In general, much like anything on the internet, the first go around the noise to signal ratio is skewed to the former.

I’ve tested the app earlier this week for my non-Civil War private account.  Then earlier today I posted a short video stream of the latest Civil War Trails marker posted in Loudoun County.

One limitation is quickly in play… unless you clicked on the link when I was “Live Now” then you didn’t see it… thankfully as the video was poorly framed.  Meerkat has already posted some “rules” which govern actions on the app, but not so much behavior.  Included in those is the limitation – no reruns.  So you can’t go back and see what I shared earlier.   Though I can re-post or schedule that at a later point for you to view… provided you have “subscribed” and accept the notification to view.  As you see, that can be troublesome.  Who is sitting on their smart device waiting for a video feed to open?

However, I can see some application of this app in my near future.  So much of the 150th events have been “in the moment” and “you had to be there” experiences.  I’ve  tried to capture those from the “field” on Twitter where possible.  But there’s only so much you can do with text and a picture.  Maybe, by working a bit more on the camera techniques, I might stream some of the last few Sesquicentennial events.

We’ll see how that works… or doesn’t.  Might add a new facet to live blogging these sort of events.  Then again, might not be worth the hassle.