4 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Model Military Studies

  1. Al Mackey March 13, 2011 / 10:41 am

    I would point to Bruce Catton’s two trilogies for writing style. I would point to Harry Pfanz’s series on Gettysburg and Gordon Rhea’s series on the Overland Campaign for examples of detail and evaluation.

  2. David Rhoads March 13, 2011 / 3:07 pm

    Although I’ll give a nod to the usual suspects–Coddington and Pfanz on Gettysburg, Rhea on the Overland Campaign, Hennessy on 2nd Bull Run, Cozzens on the Valley, etc.–I have to admit that I’m no longer all that keen on diving into a doorstop-sized tome when I pick up a military study. When I do muster some enthusiasm for one of these monters, I often find myself setting it aside after several hundred pages, sometimes returning to it later and finishing it, sometimes not.

    So with that in mind, I would recommend George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge and Mark Grimsley’s And Keep Moving On as studies to emulate, one at the tactical level and the other at the big-picture campaign level. Both are very well-written and engaging and seem to me to more than adequately make their cases as they cover their chosen ground. Perhaps more important, neither book overstays its welcome–Stewart in particular seems hardly to waste a word. Reading these books is a pleasure, not a chore.

    My third recommendation would be Stephen Cushman’s Bloody Promenade concerning the Battle of the Wilderness, not so much as a model exactly, but as a kind of reference on how to approach and make sense of the different sorts of texts that make up the historical record of a Civil War military action. Cushman is a poet and a literature guy, not a historian or a social scientist, but I think his literary background affords him a way of looking at sources that leads to different insights than would generally occur to a historian. I think historians could learn something valuable here.

    • Chuck Brown March 14, 2011 / 7:16 am

      I agree with all of you selections, David, with the exception of Cushman’s book, which I have not read. I might add that all of the books in the Great Campaigns of the Civil War are very well done.

  3. Scott Manning March 15, 2011 / 5:32 pm

    Brooks, I think you might want to break this down further into more categories. For example, a military history book can cover a war, campaign, battle, commander, theme, etc.

    Off the top of my head, here are three books that were exceptional.

    Clifford Rodgers’ War Cruel and Sharp about English strategy under Edward III is a fantastic book that focuses on the strategy, wars, and campaigns of a single commander, in this case, a warrior-king. Rodgers writes for military history enthusiasts and he knows how to grab their attention. As he focuses on the struggles that Edward went through at home and abroad, he tackles issues like the English populace growing tired of his war with France. Not unlike Lincoln in 1864, Edward longed for a major victory in 1346, which would turn the popular opinion in his country. Rodgers continually focuses on how Edward secured his funding, equipment, and troops; follows Edward on his campaigns; and of course, breaks down the battles. It is thorough and a pleasure to read. Even better, he is a stickler about putting his footnotes on the actual pages, which I love.

    Almost a Miracle by John Ferling is probably the best book I have read that covers an entire war. I grabbed it after reading Eric Wittenberg’s strong recommendation for the book and I am glad I did. The book is martial in nature while the politics tend to take a backseat. The author presents just enough perspective from generals and soldiers on all sides of the war to put together a seemingly complete picture. For example, he will quote letters from soldiers who fought on opposing sides of a battle. It is chilling to compare and contrast the motives and beliefs of both soldiers. It is thorough, entertaining, and fair.

    Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie is a great military history book that barely touches on an actual war. We should remember that militaries still exist without a conflict. This book discusses the events leading up to World War I and the development of the Dreadnought ship that seemed so crucial to Britain and Germany at the time. It covers a lot of politics, alliances, royal interactions, and military policies.

    Having just written all that, I realized I did not list a single Civil War book. John J. Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run is phenomenal. I could not put it down. I just started reading Joseph L. Harsh’s Taken at the Flood. I have not finished it, so I cannot give a proper review, but I again can hardly put the thing down. Harsh writes with purpose and addresses seemingly old topics with a seriousness that some historians lack.

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