What I’m Reading: An Interview with Civil War Historian Earl J. Hess

tags: Civil War, interview, Earl J Hess

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

Earl J. Hess, Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University, is the author of eighteen books on the Civil War, including Civil War Infantry Tactics, winner of the 2016 Tom Watson Brown Book Award from the Society of Civil War Historians.

What books are you reading now?

Mostly books on the experience of soldiering in various wars, including World War I and the American Revolution, plus a great deal of articles and books produced by historic archaeologists who dig battlefields and other sites associated with conflict.

What is your favorite history book?

I do not have one favorite history book but I do enjoy reading good quality studies of military history, especially those that take an innovative approach to understanding the experience of warfare.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Ever since a teenager I have been taken by the subject of history, and like it mostly because it is the study of people, not only what they did in the past but why they did it, and how they dealt with the consequences of their actions. The human drama of history has always fascinated me, and that is probably why I enjoy doing military history more than any other brand of historical study. War time tends to compress all the pressures, demands, challenges, and tests one can encounter in a lifetime into a few hours or a few minutes of intense experience. What happens during those compressed times, and how people deal with them, is at the heart of military history.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

First and foremost one needs a passionate dedication to studying history because they will not find it easy to make a career in this field. If there are 300 applications for every academic job opening, you can imagine how difficult it will be to achieve your goal of teaching and writing on the college level. Beyond that, having a good sense of chronology, being willing to take the historical era on its own terms instead of injecting your own modernist view into the past, and being willing to work hard and to devote the time and effort that is required to get it right (in short, a good academic work ethic), are all basic requirements. One must also not take one’s work TOO seriously either, for there are many readers of history out there who will never be convinced of your take on a historical event no matter how well-crafted and sound it is.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

I have always found the American Civil War era the most compelling, but also am fascinated by ancient Rome and by World War I. I cannot explain why, but if I was compelled to choose another era than the Civil War I think it would not be too difficult to do so.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I cannot name a single favorite but I always liked those who were thoughtful, took their job seriously, and encouraged students to question everything, doing it with grace and decorum.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

Although I am not a world or social historian, I do think a good deal about both because they intersect in important ways with Civil War military history. In fact, I am strongly convinced that Civil War military historians desperately need to broaden their purview to include comparisons with international history, to pay attention to work in other disciplines, and to look more at the social history of the army and navy in the Civil War than has been done to date. In short, my main hope is that social historians will incorporate the study of armies and warfare into their charge, and that military historians will also embrace social history more seriously than they have in the past.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I have flirted with collecting at various times in the past. Early in my career I did collect unpublished soldier letters from the Civil War that were available on the market but gave it up pretty soon as too expensive. While I have not made a point of collecting rare books a couple have found their way into my hands. I have a French language bible, for example, published in 1714 on my shelf because a library wanted to get rid of it for some reason and gave it to me. As a historian and one who was, and still is, interested in archives, it goes very much against my grain to throw away anything in the way of old books or papers.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

The most frustrating aspects have been the difficulty of searching for suitable employment early in one’s career—that is the sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head when they finish their doctoral degree work. The current climate seems particularly hard for freshly minted Ph.Ds and I doubt we will ever see it improve very much. Some other frustrations include the fact that everyone reads your book in different ways—by that I mean that even seasoned historians will not necessarily read carefully all one’s points made in a multi-dimensional study. There is a tendency for historians to, out of a sense of busyness, want a “tagline” to identify any new book that comes out in their field. That means they really only pay attention to one out of perhaps half a dozen major arguments advanced in that book. And if the historian writes for a general, non-academic audience as well, the level of holistic comprehension tends to slip even more.

But whenever I worry about things like these, I always remind myself that if one is fortunate enough to secure a position and has the time to research and write, an extremely basic desire (or a basic need, we really should say) has been fulfilled in life. No matter how bad it gets, at least one has a job in a field of their choosing and the opportunity to make it work so that they can help students and themselves at the same time. And that is a message that ought to resonate among all historians—be grateful for what you have rather than complain about what you do not have.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

It has changed a lot in terms of technology. When I worked on my Ph.D. at Purdue University in the early 1980s we still were using typewriters—just then, before I finished in 1986, the first word processors came into use and the History Department at Purdue installed a computer lab for its undergraduate students. For some reason I was assigned as a graduate assistant to that room and I had to learn on the job how to use word processing programs. That enabled me to finish the last draft of my dissertation on a computer after hammering out the earlier drafts on an old Remington manual typewriter. Email capability came into play about ten years after I finished my doctoral studies. Now the historian can benefit from an expanding array of primary material that is posted on various websites, easily accessible to anyone with a computer. That includes especially public domain books and, to a lesser degree, unpublished archival material. The ability to amass a huge amount of material on your subject is the real change; it can be done with far less travel and trouble than before the internet age set in. As far as interpretive stance is concerned, the profession has not changed very much. Even in the 1980s the trend was toward social and cultural history and away from traditional fields such as political, economic, and military. That trend may have peaked but it is still around in many ways.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I like to think that “historians have the last word” has some relevance. That is, I guess, my own modest contribution to the world of quotes (assuming I have not read it somewhere).

What are you doing next?

I conduct work on several book and article projects simultaneously, having realized a long time ago that this is the most efficient way to gather material. So when anyone asks me this question I honestly do not know how to answer. Currently I am reading many reports written by archaeologists who work on Civil War sites, and to a lesser degree on non-Civil War battlefields, because I want to write a book highlighting that angle on understanding the military history of the Civil War. Having completed my Ph.D. in American Studies, with a concentration in History, I am keen on trying to foster more multi-disciplinary work and this is one way to do that. In addition, I am pursuing work on several books designed to understand not only the experience of soldiering in the Civil War but how military systems worked in that conflict, from the government bureaucracies down to small units in the field.

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