The Enduring Nature of Military History

“I think almost all military history is actually a study of the human condition and what humans are cable of accomplishing, both for the greater good and, unfortunately, as a destructive force,” explains Bill Allison, new editor of the University Press of Kansas’s (UPK) Modern War Studies series.

UPK was founded in 1946, began publishing military history books in 1986 and has published more than 250 titles in its acclaimed Modern War Studies series since then.

“Kansas was one of the first university presses to publish in military history,” explains Editor in Chief Joyce Harrison. “The first book we published in the Modern War Studies series, America’s First Battles, was published in 1986. Our military history list started because of the connections between the outstanding military history programs at the University of Kansas and the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.”

In fact, America’s First Battles – a collection of eleven original essays by many of the foremost U.S. military historians, focuses on the transition of the Army from parade ground to battleground in each of nine wars the United States has fought up to 1965 – is the Press’ best-selling military history book. Nearly 46,000 copies have been sold and, according to Military Review, the book remains “Must reading for the serious student of history, whether military or civilian.”

Brian Steel Wills, director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University and author of 3 UPK books including Inglorious Passages; Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War and The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman believes that the enduring popularity of military history has less to do with guns and ammunition, and more to do with people.

“Military conflicts have a dramatic influence on all aspects of life,” Wills explains. “I tell my students all the time that if you have an interest in music or the arts or civil rights, then you have an interest in military history. I think a great deal of interest in the Civil War revolves not around the actual battles, but around the stories of families. How did brothers who fought on opposite sides reconcile after the war ended? How did families move on and make a life after the fighting stopped? Those are fascinating, human-interest questions.”

Timothy B. Smith, who has written 11 books about the Civil War (including UPK’s Grant Invades Tennessee, Shiloh and Corinth 1862), echoes Wills’s thoughts about the draw of human-interest stories that develop during, and because of, times of war.

“Folks want to know what their granddaddy did in World War I and World War II,” he explains. “And for that matter, they want to know what their great and great-great granddaddy did in the Civil War. I think as vets age and pass on, there is a sense that we need to tell these tales in an effort to memorialize what they did. That’s why academic interest in the Civil War seems to be waning and more people are studying the world wars and the Vietnam and Korean wars.”

Harrison says that UPK’s goals with the Modern War Studies series are straightforward.

“Our mission is to advance knowledge, and our books have made and continue to make a tremendous impact, shaping the way historians and military professionals think about, study, and write about military history,” she says.

Bill Allison agrees that publishing military history is a two-part mission.

“A lot of people get into military history because of the guns and drums,” he says. “But the deeper you dive into any military conflict, the more layers, both military and personal, you find. I think that’s the root reason military history continues to fascinate people. There’s always one more aspect you can consider.”

Dwight T. Pitcaithley (The U.S. Constitution and Secession) Q & A

Five months after the election of Abraham Lincoln, which had revealed the fracturing state of the nation, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and the fight for the Union began in earnest. This documentary reader offers a firsthand look at the constitutional debates that consumed the country in those fraught five months. Day by day, week by week, these documents chart the political path, and the insurmountable differences, that led directly—but not inevitably—to the American Civil War. In The U.S. Constitution and Secession; A Documentary Ahthology of Slavery and White Supremacy, Dwight Pitcaithley has assembled the quintessential public statements that lead to the South’s secession in an effort to maintain slavery and advance white supremacy.

 

1. When did you first have the idea to work on The U.S. Constitution and Secession?

I began my research on secession upon my retirement from the National Park Service in 2005 simply to satisfy my own curiosity. I knew that slavery was at the core of the secession movement, but I did not understand exactly how. As I started uncovering the dozens of proposed solutions to the “problem” posed by Lincoln’s election in 1860 the idea for a book began taking shape. Once I realized that no one had ever codified or analyzed the sixty-seven suggested constitutional amendments or written about them as a specific category of evidence, I started conceptualizing the book.

2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

From start to finish the book took about a decade. Locating and analyzing the published proceedings from the various official gatherings over Secession Winter took a fair amount of time. Then I had to determine what the proposed constitutional amendments meant. Were they honest efforts to solve the sectional crisis or were they just designed to stall or prolong the deliberative process. Once I understood their import, I began crafting a monograph, organized by geographic regions, that described and analyzed the amendments. I became dissatisfied with that manuscript because of the repetitive nature of the proposed solutions. I then shifted to a documentary reader format with an extended introduction. Crafting the introduction spanned around three years. During the process of understanding the puzzle of secession, I became intrigued with the symbiotic relationship between slavery and white supremacy and the degree to which southerners assumed and defended that connection. Factoring that relationship into the research and writing process provided new meaning to the proceedings of the elected officials over Secession Winter.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of editing the publication?

The most challenging (and yet, in an interesting way, rewarding) aspect of the editing process was chasing down sources for the un-attributed quotes, allusions to historical and fictional characters, and references to classical literature that were imbedded throughout the official documents. The Witch of Endor and Mazeppa, for example, were not part of my educational background.

4. The U.S. Constitution and Secession is, essentially, the nail in the coffin for those arguing that the Civil War was not about slavery. How do you respond to people who maintain their argument that Southern states seceded for any reason other than the protection of slavery and white supremacy?

People can and do believe what they want to believe. If, after reading The U.S. Constitution and Secession, they still maintain that secession was not about slavery, they need to develop the case that Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs, John Crittenden (and virtually all elected officials at the time) were prevaricating when they explained to their peers that slavery was the root cause of secession.

5. Do you expect, or have you received any negative feedback from your book and the case you are presenting?

I have received no negative comments as yet although I certainly expect some. And I will welcome challenges to the book and its findings. The resulting conversation will help get us where we need to go.

6. What is your reaction to recent events that have triggered a new debate over the roots of the civil war?

My first reaction is sadness that the notion of white supremacy continues to motivate individuals to violence. The events of Charleston and Charlottesville and other places remind us of how far we have yet to go regarding race relations, how debilitating racism continues to be. This nation can abolish slavery and legislate against segregation, but the solution to white supremacist thinking seems to confound us.

At the same time, the public debate over the proper role Confederate memory plays in our society should be welcomed. Airing the dark aspects of this country’s past will help us understand the relationship between then and now, and how decisions we make about the future should not be based on false histories.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

President Trump. It might help him understand the historical (and contemporary) corrosiveness of white supremacy.

8. What are you reading now?

Mitch Landrieu’s In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History (2018)

Dwight T. Pitcaithley is a college professor of history at New Mexico State University. He is a former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.

Lana Wirt Myers (The Diaries of Reuben Smith) Q & A

In 1854, after recently arriving from England, twenty-two-year-old Reuben Smith traveled west, eventually making his way to Kansas Territory. There he found himself in the midst of a bloody prelude to the Civil War, as Free Staters and defenders of slavery battled to stake their claim. The young Englishman wrote down what he witnessed in a diary where he had already begun documenting his days in a clear and candid fashion. As beautifully written as they are keenly observant, these diaries afford an unusual view of America in its most tumultuous times, of Kansas in its critical historical moments, and of one mans life in the middle of it all for fifty years.

Lana Wirt Myers speaks about her experience editing the book…

When did you first have the idea to work on The Diaries of Reuben Smith?

My first introduction to Reuben Smith’s diaries happened forty years ago when I was a graduate assistant in the Special Collections Department of Wichita State University’s library. While I was organizing the manuscript collection of Kansas poet May Williams Ward, I found an excerpt from her grandfather’s diary describing his voyage from England to America in 1854. It was a fascinating story and once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. Soon after, I learned from one of Ward’s cousins that their Grandfather Smith had written extensive diaries and they were believed to be in the possession of a descendant living in Texas.

Now, fast-forward to 2009 when I was finishing my book Prairie Rhythms, a biographical book about May Williams Ward. I was checking some references at the Kansas Historical Society’s archives when I saw that the complete set of Reuben Smith’s diaries had been acquired and was available for viewing. Of course I had to see them. And I found the stories within them as captivating as the excerpt I’d read back in 1978. I knew then what my next project would be.

Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

When I first began, I honestly had no idea how I was going to present the diaries in the book. I didn’t want the book to be simply a transcription of the diaries; I wanted it to appeal to a general audience, ranging from those who would simply enjoy Smith’s personal stories to those who would appreciate the historical details contained in them. So, I guess you could say it was a bit like letting the fabric speak to the designer or the canvas dictate to the artist. It was a process that kept evolving, and I tried to let the diaries guide me. When I first read through them, I noted some of my own curiosities and what I felt I needed to learn in order to understand who some of the people were and the roles they played, especially during the Civil War years. Gradually, I began to picture my role as one to provide the background for Smith’s stories, offering the necessary information to make the stories more meaningful.

After I finished typing the diaries into a word processing document, I launched into research, especially pertaining to Civil War military history, because I wanted to let readers know what was happening at various times, both nationally and regionally. An added bonus to this was learning so much about where I’d grown up and where my father’s family settled along the western border of Missouri. It truly became a journey for me as well as for the book. During this time, I also began to see that the diaries could be sectioned into categories, or chapters, and not necessarily by years. In addition, I began to see that not every diary entry needed to be included. The significant stories within the diaries are those that provide a new primary resource for early Kansas history.

In all, I spent two and a half years working on the book, including the various editing stages involved in the publishing process.

What was the most challenging aspect of editing the publication?

I’m not sure I can assign “most challenging” to any one aspect, but initially, I had to figure out a workable way to transfer the original diaries to a word processing document. It was a tremendous help to be able to access the diaries through the Kansas Historical Society’s “Kansas Memory” website, but it took some experimenting to figure out a workable way to read from one screen while typing to another. It was a bit tricky working with a desktop computer and a Surface tablet at the same time, using two keyboards and two mouses, but the equipment and I eventually settled into a routine.

Beyond logistics, an ongoing challenge was identifying references in the diaries to unfamiliar names and phrases — ranging from towns, creeks and bridges that no longer exist to the nickname of an insect that was notorious for residing in Missouri soldiers’ tents. I consulted all sorts of unusual and dated resources, even an 1860s military medical guide, to find answers. One of the local interlibrary loan librarians finally asked me, “What ARE you working on?” Some field trips were involved as well. But this historical “digging” was fun, and the little victories were rewarding.

The Diaries of Reuben Smith is a beautiful narrative of Free State settler and Civil War soldier. Smith’s writing is moving and candid. What do you think readers, both from Kansas and across the globe, will find more interesting about his story?

I think Smith provides an unusual perspective, being a young Englishman who formed his political opinions after arriving in the United States, unfiltered by familial or geographical loyalties. And he’s never a bystander; he’s a participant. He gives us personal introductions to key figures, and through his descriptions of what he observes and experiences, we feel as though we are there alongside him. He takes us with him as he encounters border ruffians, wolves and Indians on his way to stake a claim on land in Kansas Territory. And through his writings, we witness the escalation of the Civil War along the Kansas-Missouri border, as well as Smith’s evolution from a civilian volunteer soldier to a seasoned military officer. We can see the process. We can watch as history unfolds.

Smith was an early steward of the Kansas State Insane Asylum. Is there any indication of how he would view the current state of the Larned State Hospital and Osawatomie State Hospital?

I’ve thought about that as I’ve read news articles about the problems facing these institutions, especially Osawatomie State Hospital, since Smith was entrusted with its funds as steward during the early days of its operation. Smith experienced firsthand what the swinging pendulum of politics can do to the state’s institutions. I believe he’d be busy writing letters to newspapers, as well as to legislators, voicing his opinions and proposing solutions.

 If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

I’m going to take the liberty of defining “one person” as all of Smith’s descendants. And that is no small number, since Smith fathered thirteen children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. I can’t imagine a more treasured gift for a father to leave his children and grandchildren than fifty years of his personal history, during which he participated in the settlement and statehood of Kansas, in the fight against slavery, in postwar politics, and in the operation of the state’s first psychiatric hospital. Smith wanted his children to read history as he lived it. And I’m anxious for his many grandchildren to meet him.

What are you reading now?

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Lana Wirt Myers is the author of Prairie Rhythms: The Life and Poetry of May Williams Ward, named a 2011 Kansas Notable Book.

Charlottesville Curriculum, via the University Press of Kansas

Acquisitions editors Kim Hogeland and Joyce Harrison have created a preliminary reading list of UPK titles related to the past week’s events in Charlottesville, race relations and civil rights.

Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 by Kelly J. Baker

This engrossing exposé looks closely at the Klan’s definition of Protestantism, its belief in a strong relationship between church and state, its notions of masculinity and femininity, and its views on Jews and African Americans. The book also examines in detail the Klan’s infamous 1924 anti-Catholic riot at Notre Dame University and draws alarming parallels between the Klan’s message of the 1920s and current posturing by some Tea Party members and their sympathizers.

 

Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945-1974 by  Timothy N. Thurber

But since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate has attracted more than 15 percent of the black electorate, and few GOP candidates for other offices have fared much better. No segment of the American electorate is more reliably Democratic than African Americans. The GOP, meanwhile, remains nearly an all-white party. In this path-breaking book, historian Timothy Thurber illuminates the deep roots of this gulf by exploring the contentious, and sometimes surprising, relationship between African Americans and the Republican Party from the end of World War II through Richard Nixons presidency. The GOP, he shows, shaped the modern civil rights movement, but the struggle for racial equality also transformed the GOP.

 

Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation by John R. Neff

Neff contends that the significance of the Civil War dead has been largely overlooked and that the literature on the war has so far failed to note how commemorations of the dead provide a means for both expressing lingering animosities and discouraging reconciliation. Commemoration—from private mourning to the often extravagant public remembrances exemplified in cemeteries, monuments, and Memorial Day observances—provided Americans the quintessential forum for engaging the wars meaning.

 

The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy by William C. Davis

Davis also illustrates why the cause of the war—a subject of long-standing controversy—boils down to the single issue of slavery; why Southerners, ninety percent of whom didn’t own slaves, were willing to join in the battle to defend their homeland; how the personalities, tactics, and styles of the armies in the turbulent West differed greatly from those in the East; what real or perceived turning points influenced Southern decision making; and how mythology and misinterpretations have been perpetuated through biography, history, literature, and film. Revealing the Confederacy’s myths for what they really are, Davis nevertheless illustrates how much those myths inform our understanding of the Civil War and its place in Southern and American culture.

 

Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery by Earl M. Maltz

The slave Dred Scott claimed that his residence in a free state transformed him into a free man. His lawsuit took many twists and turns before making its way to the Supreme Court in 1856. But when the Court ruled against him, the ruling sent shock waves through the nation and helped lead to civil war.

 

Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America by Williamjames Hull Hoffer

Hoffer’s compelling reconstruction illuminates the controversies and impact of Plessy v. Ferguson for a new generation of students and other interested readers. It also pays tribute to a group of little known heroes from the Deep South who failed to hold back the tide of racial segregation but nevertheless laid the groundwork for a less divided America.

 

Race, Sex, and the Freedom to Marry: Loving v. Virginia by Peter Wallenstein

In 1958 Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, two young lovers from Caroline County, Virginia, got married. Soon they were hauled out of their bedroom in the middle of the night and taken to jail. Their crime? Loving was white, Jeter was not, and in Virginia—as in twenty-three other states then—interracial marriage was illegal. Their experience reflected that of countless couples across America since colonial times. And in challenging the laws against their marriage, the Lovings closed the book on that very long chapter in the nation’s history. Race, Sex, and the Freedom to Marry tells the story of this couple and the case that forever changed the law of race and marriage in America.

 

Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Howard Ball

Howard Ball reminds us just how problematic the prosecution of the murderers—all members of the KKK—actually was. When the State of Mississippi failed to indict them, the U.S. tried to prosecute the case in federal district court. The judge there, however, ruled that the federal government had no jurisdiction and so dismissed the case. When the U.S. appealed, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court decision, claiming that federal authorities did indeed have the power to police civil rights violations in any state. United States v. Price (1967) thus produced a landmark decision that signaled a seismic shift in American legal history and race relations, for it meant that local authorities could no longer shield racist lawbreakers.

Attention Civil War Enthusiasts

9780700621231 For Civil War historians and Ken Burns fans, PBS recently rebroadcast The Civil War to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the series’ initial broadcast in September 1990.  For further reading, UPK offers “A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary” by J.B. Jones, Edited by James L. Robertson Jr. as a two volume set.

Amidst the vast literature of the Civil War, one of the most significant and enlightening documents remains largely unknown. A day-by-day, uninterrupted, four-year chronicle by a mature, keenly observant clerk in the War Department of the Confederacy, the wartime diary of John Beauchamp Jones was first published in two volumes of small type in 1866. Over the years, the diary was republished three more times—but never with an index or an editorial apparatus to guide a reader through the extraordinary mass of information it contained. Published here with an authoritative editorial framework, including an extensive introduction and endnotes, this unique record of the Civil War serves as one of the best basic reference tools in Civil War history.

A Maryland journalist/novelist who went south at the outbreak of the war, Jones took a job as a senior clerk in the Confederate War Department, where he remained to the end, a constant observer of men and events in Richmond, the heart of the Confederacy and the principal target of Union military might. As a high-level clerk at the center of military planning, Jones had an extraordinary perspective on the Southern nation in action—and nothing escaped his attention. Confidential files, command-level conversations, official correspondence, revelations, rumors, statistics, weather reports, and personal opinions: all manner of material, found nowhere else in Civil War literature, made its meticulous way into the diary. Jones quotes scores of dispatches and reports by both military and civilian authorities, including letters from Robert E. Lee never printed elsewhere, providing an invaluable record of documents that would later find their way into print only in edited form. His notes on such ephemera as weather and prices create a backdrop for the military movements and political maneuverings he describes, all with the judicious eye of a seasoned writer and observer of southern life.

James I. Robertson Jr., provides introductions to each volume, over 2,700 endnotes that identify, clarify, and expand on Joness material, and a first ever index which makes Jones’s unique insights and observations accessible to interested readers, who will find in the pages of “A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary one of the most complete and richly textured accounts of the Civil War ever to be composed.