Further Discussion on Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War

by Brett Schulte on April 4, 2008 · 0 comments

In an interesting coincidence, Mark Grimsley blogged about his recent remarks at the March 29 Organization of American Historians round table. Why coincidence you say? Because Mark spoke about the destructiveness of the Civil War around the same time I was reviewing and blogging about The Hard Hand of War, his book on the subject. In his blog entry, Mark had some interesting thoughts, including his hope for further detailed local studies of the war’s destructive nature:

In his review of The Hard Hand of War, Royster opined that a struggle that killed two percent of the U.S. population was an odd place to look for restraint in war. The impact of that level of death has recently been explored in Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering (2008). I don’t think that we have seen the last of works that analyze the destructiveness of the Civil War. It is too obvious and important an aspect of the conflict to be exhausted any time soon. But in terms of fertile ground for further research, I personally would welcome detailed micro histories of the destructive war as it played out in specific localities. We have far too few of these, and the ones that do exist tend to be written by lay students of the conflict and, by and large, show little engagement with the larger conversation on this subject.

Drew Wagenhoffer commented after the blog entry that he too would like to see more studies on this subject. I third that notion. Further investigation would help paint a clearer picture of just how destructive the war was when soldiers were in close proximity to civilians during difficult situations. Grimsley does a creditable job with his own examples of this, but the level of detail about specific incidents in a book focusing on the entire war cannot be great. It would be very interesting to me personally to see if such studies bear out the larger theme presented in The Hard Hand of War regarding the restraint shown by Union soldiers in most cases.

In his last few paragraphs, Mark mentioned Earl J. Hess’ upcoming book The Rifle Musket in the Civil War, a book Mark believes will essentially and convincingly establish Paddy Griffith’s thoughts in Battle Tactics of the Civil War as the orthodox view on the subject of the Civil War as the last of the Napoleonic Wars. This was the first mention of Hess’ book I had read, and the implications Mark indicates will, if true, make this an extremely important new piece of scholarship. I quote directly from Mark’s post below:

Alternatively, the conflict can be seen as the last of the Napoleonic wars — indeed, as what Paddy Griffith suggestively called “a badly fought Napoleonic war.” In Battle Tactics of the Civil War (1989), Griffith argued that the rifled musket was at best an incremental improvement over the smoothbore musket, and that the linear tactics used in the war were therefore appropriate, not outmoded as the prevailing orthodoxy maintained. The key problem, he argued, was that Civil War units lacked the tactical sophistication to execute a Napoleonic assault successfully.

In so doing, Griffith took direct aim at Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson’s Attack and Die (1982), the best study to emphasize the transformational impact of the rifled musket. Initially Civil War military historians greeted his thesis with skepticism, partly because of his iconoclastic presentation and partly because of his limited evidence base. Over time, however, they have taken it with increasing seriousness, and Earl J. Hess’s forthcoming The Rifle Musket in the Civil War largely confirms Griffith’s thesis. In fact, Hess’s book is so well executed that upon publication it will become the standard work on the subject, and the Griffith thesis will become the new orthodoxy.

The rifled musket issue may sound arcane to the non-military historians in the room, so it is perhaps worth underscoring that their low velocity, soft lead bullets were the single biggest factor in making the America of the 1860s a “republic of suffering.” It is a simple but profound argument against the tendency to dismiss the battlefield dimension of the Civil War as arcane “drums and trumpets” history.

I’d like to close off this entry by thanking Mark for his mention of my review. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it Mark. I know I enjoyed reading the book. It provided much food for thought for sure.


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