Tag Archives: military history

Teaching the West in the Civil War Era

Most courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction venture only briefly into the American West. Textbooks and lectures often dispense quickly with the region. They make fleeting forays into the Kansas and Missouri border wars, or the military conflict over the Mississippi River, before returning to a familiar North/South narrative focused on eastern battlefields and the halls of Congress.

The articles in the December 2016 special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era suggest that elevating the West to a place of importance alongside the North and the South can transform students’ understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction in some critical ways. Expanding our courses to encompass the American West does not merely add new people and new places to the story. Grappling with the West can change how we interpret the significance of the Confederate rebellion, the power of the federal state, and the success of postwar reconstruction. At the same time, incorporating the American West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course already dense with detail, and overflowing with complex themes, poses major conceptual and practical challenges. Below, I outline some strategies for getting the West into your Civil War and Reconstruction course and helping students wrestle with the region’s significance.

Avoid Treating the Confederate Rebellion in Isolation

Rather than focusing solely on the Confederate rebellion against the U.S. federal government, treat the Confederacy as one of many regional polities across the nation that contested federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century. One effective way to do this is to frame the Civil War as a two-front conflict for the United States. At the same time that the U.S. government waged war against a southern Confederacy that defied federal authority, it also prosecuted a western war against Native peoples who disputed federal sovereignty over their homelands. In this framework, the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahos at Sand Creek (1864) become part of the same story. Students can see them as similar turning points when U.S. military might began to crush regional rebellions against federal authority.

One particularly effective strategy for helping students see these connections is to shift focus to Indian Territory, the place where the southern and western warfronts converged with each other. Complex and shifting alliances among the United States, the Confederacy, and Indian nations—most of whom had a strained relationship with the U.S. government after removal—highlight the multiple, intersecting rebellions against federal authority that bound together the West and the South. Rather than being isolated from or tangential to the “real story” of the Civil War, Native peoples’ struggle to maintain sovereignty over their western homelands becomes vital to understanding the national conflict over the boundaries of federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Focus on Moments of Federal Weakness, Not Just Federal Strength

While a standard Civil War and Reconstruction course might emphasize the rapid expansion and consolidation of federal power during and after the war, events in the American West illustrate the weak and ineffectual nature of the federal state at the borders and margins of the nation. Instructors might assign Kevin Waite’s or Megan Kate Nelson’s essays in the special issue to demonstrate the federal government’s limited power to suppress Native resistance, Confederate invasions, and proslavery imperial ambitions in the distant, isolated New Mexico and Arizona territories.[1] Similarly, Pekka Hämäläinen’s essay can help students think critically about the limited reach of the federal state in the heart of the continent where expanding Native empires often dictated the terms of diplomacy to would-be U.S. conquerors.[2]

Pushing into the postwar era, instructors can juxtapose western and southern moments when the federal government attempted to quell rebellious local polities with mixed results. One lecture might compare federal efforts to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment in the former Confederacy and New Mexico. The inability of the federal government to root out the traces of chattel slavery in the South, as well as its utter ineffectiveness in eradicating peonage in the Southwest, can lead students into a discussion about the limits of the federal state’s power to institute a regime of free wage labor across the entire nation. A comparison of failed land redistribution plans for the freedpeople with the allotment of Indian communal lands under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 could prompt a very different class discussion. The federal state’s power (or lack thereof) to impose a liberal vision of citizenship, based on property accumulation and small landholding, varied tremendously in the former Confederacy and in Indian country.

The events of 1877 also make for a promising point of comparison. Students can consider how the end of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy, the Nez Perce War, and the Great Railroad Strike signaled fundamental geographic shifts in federal power. The decline of federal authority in the southern states coincided with the federal government’s swift reconfiguration and redeployment of state power to suppress Indian and working-class rebellions.

Depiction of battle between Nez Perce and the U.S. Army
“The Nez Perce War,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 3, 1877, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Use Biography to Connect North, South, and West

Finally, a powerful way to integrate the West into the familiar North/South story is to track the transcontinental journeys of familiar figures across the Civil War era. Remind students that nineteenth-century Americans did not live in sharply defined regional boxes. They traversed geographic boundaries in fluid ways that demonstrate the interconnectedness of regional histories. Instead of just examining William Tecumseh Sherman’s efforts to suppress rebellion against the federal government in the heart of the Confederacy during the early 1860s, place his Civil War military career into the context of his decades-long relationship with the American West. Sherman spent much of the 1850s in California. He worked as a gold rush banker and sought to incorporate the new Pacific territories into the U.S. commercial economy. He had his first experience suppressing civil rebellion when Gov. J. Neely Johnson appointed him as a major-general in the California militia and charged him with breaking up San Francisco’s 1856 Committee of Vigilance, which had overthrown the municipal government. After the war, Sherman took the lessons of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas back to the West. He advocated scorched earth warfare against resistant Native people of the Great Plains that was reminiscent of his policy toward Confederate civilians. Sherman’s wartime promise of forty acres and a mule to southern freedpeople also presaged the kind of property redistribution and emphasis on small-scale agrarianism that the federal government tried to install on Native lands with the Dawes Act. Sherman’s experiences in the West both transformed and were transformed by his experiences in the Confederate South.

Six Union officers sitting outside a wood frame building
Ely S. Parker (seated, second from the right) at Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Virginia, 1865, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Seneca General Ely S. Parker provides students with an example of how Native people also lived lives that do not fit neatly into North/South narratives. Parker advocated for Seneca sovereignty and land rights in New York before becoming General Ulysses S. Grant’s personal military secretary during the Civil War. He recorded the terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865 that ended the Confederate rebellion. In the postwar years, as the United States embarked on the project of southern reconstruction, Parker oversaw the reconstruction of Indian country. He served as the first indigenous U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs and worked to make treaties with western Indian peoples that would facilitate their incorporation and assimilation into the United States. In Parker, students can see the intersection of southern and western civil wars and reconstructions, and the ways that Native lives transcended binary North/South conceptions of nineteenth-century history.[3]

Embrace Gradual Experimentation

Incorporating the West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course will necessarily require some trial and error. Rather than attempting to overhaul an entire course in one semester or quarter, consider gradually reworking a handful of lectures to include more western material, or insert a few additional western readings into the mix at critical points. Repeat the process every time you teach the class. After just a few iterations, the West will become a robust and natural part of the class content. The familiar North/South axis that once stood at the heart of the course will gradually give way to a national, continental, narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

[1] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 4 (2016): 536 – 65; Megan Kate Nelson, “The Civil War from Apache Pass,” in ibid., 510 – 35.

[2] Pekka Hämäläinen, “Reconstructing the Great Plains: The Long Struggle for Sovereignty and Dominance in the Heart of the Continent,” in ibid., 481 – 509.

[3] I recommend assigning C. Joseph-Genetin Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), which analyzes Parker’s critical role in postwar Indian affairs.

Stacey L. Smith

Stacey L. Smith is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (UNC Press, 2013) which won the inaugural David Montgomery Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association. She is currently completing a book on African American civil rights activists who migrated to the Pacific Coast of North America in the middle of the nineteenth century.

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 A. Mujic is currently teaching at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Her first book, Why They Stayed: The Mind of Northern Men in the Civil War Midwest is forthcoming from Fordham University Press. Mujic has presented research at two SCWH conferences, published essays in several edited volumes, and serves on the editorial board for the book series Engaging the Civil War from Southern Illinois University Press. She is active on Twitter at @JulieMujic, opposes Daylight Savings Time, and roots for all things Cleveland.