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.”

Henry Johnson’s Medal of Honor, Harlem’s Rattlers, and the Power of History

9780700621385On June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama awarded William Henry Johnson the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor possible, for his extraordinary valor in repelling a large German patrol in the early morning of May 15, 1918, the last year of World War I. Johnson, a private in the famed 369th Regiment of African American soldiers who fought in the French Army in 1918, received the highest French Army decoration for his deed, but the U.S. Army ignored him because of his race.

Johnson died in 1929; however, decades later, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, along with his staff, and devoted constituents took up the struggle in collaboration with historian Jeffrey T. Sammons of New York University to advocate for Johnson’s bravery and military accomplishments.

In April 2014, the University Press of Kansas published Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality by Sammons and co-author John H. Morrow, Jr. of the University of Georgia. This substantial tome, which devotes chapters to Johnson’s epic combat and postwar life and which plumbed relevant sources in American and French archives, made the case for Johnson’s Congressional Medal of Honor–and epitomizes the positive power of history well done to right historic injustice.

–Written by John H. Morrow, Jr., co-author of “Harlem’s Rattlers”