Earl J. Hess Accepts Tom Watson Brown Book Award

Earl J. Hess Accepts Tom Watson Brown Book Award

The Society of Civil War Historians Banquet is an anticipated event on the program of the Southern Historical Association’s Annual Meeting. It is an opportunity for Civil War historians to gather together for conversation over dinner and drinks and hear about a new book that has garnered much attention in the field. On November 3, 2016, the 120 historians in attendance at this year’s event demonstrated their true dedication to the cause by sacrificing two more hours on the beautiful beach at the TradeWinds Grand Island Resort in St. Pete, Florida, to participate in the festivities of the SCWH dinner.

The president of the SCWH, Daniel Sutherland (University of Arkansas), introduced the Tom Watson Brown Book Award. Brown’s son, Tad Brown, sponsors the dinner, the complimentary copies of the book, and the $50,000 award each year. He also reads the book submissions and attends the dinner, where this year he presented the prize for the seventh consecutive time. Tad Brown created this award in memory of his father and the SCWH is extremely grateful for his continued support for the field.

Tad Brown, Earl Hess, and Dan Sutherland at the awards dinner, courtesy of the Society of Civil War Historians.
Tad Brown, Earl Hess, and Dan Sutherland at the awards dinner, courtesy of the Society of Civil War Historians.

The book prize committee this year consisted of Gary Gallagher, Lorien Foote, and James Marten. In their absence, Dan Sutherland read the report sent by Jim Marten regarding the winning book. Earl J. Hess’s Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (Louisiana State University Press, 2015) captured the interest and acclaim of all three committee members from the start. They appreciated how Hess asked new questions of old sources and took the time to explain and explore the significance of unit-level tactics. In a lighter moment, the banquet audience reacted perceptibly to the committee’s comment that the book will cause historians to rewrite lectures. It was a warm and complimentary letter and demonstrated the committee’s genuine admiration for Dr. Hess’s work in this book.

Dr. Earl J. Hess, Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University, then took the stage and began his talk by mentioning Mark Grimsley’s 1996 online essay “Why Military History Sucks” (http://warhistorian.blogspot.com/2016/06/why-military-history-sucked.html) and calling on historians to not let military history “die a quiet death.” Hess fears the marginalization of military history and believes that academic historians need to take a more prominent role in updating and disseminating military history. He does not want Civil War military history to be dominated by amateur historians who do not have the training and methodology he feels is necessary to analyze the sources and present the most cutting-edge research.

Hess argued that there is a pressing need for new perspectives in Civil War military history, and he stated his agreement with Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier in their recent essay (Journal of Civil War Era, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2014) when they called for more junior scholars to focus on military history. The historians at the banquet were familiar with this part of Hess’s argument, as it harkened back to discussion that cropped up in the wake of both Hess’s essay in Civil War History (Vol. 60, No. 4, December 2014) and the one by Gallagher and Meier. Megan Kate Nelson and Kevin Levin ruminated on this theme at the time in their blogs (http://www.megankatenelson.com/civil-war-military-historians-are-freaking-out/ and http://cwmemory.com/2014/12/11/in-defense-of-hess-gallagher-and-meier/), as did others, and we have also discussed this topic at length at recent conference sessions and panels. Hess utilized the stage at the SCWH dinner to reiterate his position on these issues.

Hess encouraged graduate programs to offer more military history and to make sure that scholars can be “true military historians.” He contended that Civil War military historians are far behind those of other wars and need to catch up, for example by revisiting old questions such as whether Atlanta’s fall really did secure Lincoln’s 1864 victory and whether the Civil War was truly an unusually destructive American experience. Historians of other American wars understand more about topics like supply, logistics, military engineering, and additional important aspects to conducting warfare than do Civil War historians; Hess would like to see these gaps filled in the literature.

Hess thus offers his book, Civil War Infantry Tactics, as an example and a step forward for Civil War military history. In the book, he analyzes the use of primary, small-unit tactics and discusses basic questions like the definition of column and line, the difference between them, and why it was so important that soldiers needed to know these formations. Hess argued in his banquet speech that primary tactics dominated the lives of soldiers, who were regularly drilled both during times of inactivity, long winters, or to update their skills. He pointed out that drills occurred even as late as March 1865 and that these served to keep idle troops busy and unite disparate men into battle-ready groups. Thus, understanding and drilling primary tactics had both a military and a morale-building purpose.

Hess outlined how American military leaders adopted much of their strategy and tactical knowledge from French military manuals, which were translated and interpreted by various Americans in the years prior to and just after the outbreak of the war. He reminded the audience that the manuals are filled with jargon, not theories or application, and served as a gateway to developing leadership qualities for men who were willing to dredge their way through the material. Hess argues in his book that the overwhelming majority of small unit commanders did learn tactics well enough to be effective. He noted that it was necessary for a commander to employ several maneuvers one after another in rapid succession and to be able to rely on men to obey orders without question.

After explaining the significant impact of successful implementation of tactics in the Civil War, Hess discussed how he expanded his analysis to consider how Civil War tactics fit in a linear examination of tactics in wars before and after it. Hess mentioned that this book complements another recent book of his, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth, and that the two books together demonstrate that the Civil War did not materially alter the nature of warfare in America. The rifle musket did not change how infantry fought on the battlefield – they still mainly employed short-range firing techniques rather than the longer-range opportunities offered by the new weaponry – and linear tactics did not cause the high rates of casualties in the Civil War. Hess does not agree that volunteer armies caused the wars to be long and believes that officers were effective in battle.

Hess rounded out his talk by encouraging the Civil War historians in the room to focus on the international context of the war and to compare the military history of the Civil War with other events globally in the same era. Ultimately, Hess argued that the Civil War was not a modern conflict and that it illustrates how Americans at that time copied most of their warfare style from the French; the Civil War, in Hess’s mind, demonstrated continuity with warfare before it, not American exceptionalism.

Dr. Hess’s final challenge to the audience was directed at graduate students and junior scholars to steer their research more directly toward Civil War military history. He views military history as the link between all topics of the war’s history and he sees the youthful academic historian as leading that charge.

Julie Mujic

Julie Mujic is a historian of the American Civil War who writes about the Midwestern home front. She recently published an essay in Household War: How Americans Lived and Fought The Civil War by the University of Georgia Press. Julie also teaches in the Global Commerce program at Denison University and owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC.

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