Like many--if not most-- academic historians, I have long been skeptical of military history. Too often, it seems fixated with troop movements and strategy, technology and logistics,divorced from the human story that is its inevitable consequence. Yet despite my usual interest in the slightly less violent subject of popular religious culture, the causes and consequences of war fascinate me. Since the 80s, I have paid frequent visits to the Imperial War Museum in London, which places human beings at the heart of military history. Still, unfortunate encounters with military historians in real life have led me to keep the field at arm's length.
Add the word "battle" to the phrase "American Revolution" to sum up some of my recent areas of interest, and you have a formula that, it seems, only a military history buff could love.
Fact is, I am a historian of Revolutionary America, if only as a teaching field. And I am deeply concerned with how different is the academic historians' version of the Revolution from popular perceptions. On that note, I decided that it was well past time for me to try harder to connect with military events, even if only to try to tease out the human story. My recent road trip to Pennsylvania thus took me via Kings Mountain (SC), site of a significant battle that is worth its own post (coming soon), Valley Forge (not a battlefield, but certainly a site of great significance in military history and the popular imagination), and Antietam, the Civil War battlefield that saw more than 20,000 horrific casualties in a single day.
Antietam is a harrowing place to anyone with an ounce of imagination, and when you pair a visit with the pricey but worthwhile audio tour (available in the gift shop), it can be overwhelming. This was not a battle in the romanticized sense of hand to hand combat by heroic opponents: This was slaughter that anticipated the First World War. Terrified young men marched toward death, dropping in the rows in which they marched. Many were slaughtered at point-blank range in a cornfield, cut down by bullets and cannon, along with the cornstalks through which they took their final steps. And there was nothing they could do to fight back.
By sheer chance, while at Antietam, I stumbled into a talk by historian Dr. Carol Reardon, along with Tim Vossler, her co-author of Antietam: A Field Guide . I decided to listen because I was intrigued by the fact that Carol is a professional historian, at Penn State, and because, quite honestly, she's a woman in a field that's overwhelmingly made up of men. As if reading my mind (and she had no idea who I was at that point) she gave a spirited defense of military history in the face of criticism from academic historians, and of how it is expanding to cover everyone affected by war. It was a terrific talk, and I have bought the book. As soon as I am done with my current obsession (the Third Reich, of all things, and particularly the work of the marvelously wise and readable Richard J. Evans), I will read and review.
What's with all this sudden interest in war on my part? That would be telling. But let's just say that I'm reading, experiencing, and thinking in anticipation of my next book, even as the last volume of The Snipesville Chronicles is at the printer . . .