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A dying history

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Across the nation, military history is gasping its last breath. Fewer military historians are hired as professors and even fewer schools offer courses which study the conduct of war. Sadly, Notre Dame is among the universities leading a quiet crusade against military history. We have over 30 full-time history faculty members, but not one is a military historian. Even in their self-described interests, not a single professor lists “war” of any era, although half list religious, gender, and race relations. We are fortunate enough to have Lieutenant Colonel Jordan, but he teaches here for Army ROTC, not because the history department hired him.

A casual observer might point to certain courses, such as “America in the Civil War,” and claim that wars are still studied by Notre Dame students. The hard truth is that classes like “America in the Civil War” discuss everything from war widows to draft riots – everything, that is, except the war itself. In fact, a look at the syllabus for Notre Dame’s course on the Civil War reveals that not a single day of class focuses on any battle.

If you are a professor reading this article, you are likely pulling out your hair, screaming that battlefield tactics have no place in an academic classroom. But is “guns’n’generals” history really not relevant, or do academics simply not want it to be? Integrating battlefield history back into our coursework is not only possible, it is essential.

Take, for example, the Battle of the Crater. We already read about the Emancipation Proclamation and runaway slaves joining the Union army. By shunning military history, however, we do not read about the black soldiers specially trained to spearhead the Union assault at Petersburg. At the last minute General Meade lost his confidence in the blacks and replaced them with white soldiers who had not been trained for the assault. The result: over 5,000 Union soldiers massacred.

Ignoring the tactical details of battles like Petersburg only weakens our history curriculum. Why did Meade lose faith in the black soldiers? Was this decision a question of prejudice, a loss of confidence in his sub-commanders, or perhaps a matter of political ramifications? These are provocative historical questions-but sadly, questions our students will never have to ask or answer.

Maybe instead of pondering those questions we should start by asking why our history department has not hired a professional military historian since Robert Kerby, in the 1970s? His classes were among the most popular in the history department, so why is it that after retiring he was never replaced? Or, in terms that General Meade might understand, why have Notre Dame and other top universities lost faith in the relevance of military history?

Greg Wagman


Keough Hall

Nov. 29