Remember “The Generals” books from last week? Those volumes were instrumental in grounding my love of fact-finding and thinking about history. As much as I loved those books, I got annoyed with them and I think that annoyance had helped shape my interest in “civilian studies” AKA “women’s studies.”
It didn’t take long before I realized that the snippet biographies rarely mentioned a general’s personal life or family. That bothered me. I wanted to know if he was married. If he had children. What happened to his family during the Civil War.
Looking back, I know that Ezra J. Warner’s volumes are strictly military history and they are reference books, not comprehensive biographies. And within that category, details about family life and personal relationships is rare included. That’s tradition, but is it the way it has to stay? A few thoughts on this subject:
I believe there’s nothing wrong with the traditional way of writing military history. It has its audience that wants a purely military focus. How the lines moved on the map. Or as one of my friends calls it “mud and blood.”
But, I would gently argue that traditional military history lacks nuances and sometimes makes it difficult to see the leaders as human. They often appear austere and distant in the text. Their successes and failures are examined only through what happened in the camp, during the march, or on the battlefield. What if their lives—the part often left out or only briefly mentioned—affected their leadership, for better or worse?
Need an example? A couple weeks ago, a colleague and I were talking about Confederate General James Longstreet and his leadership during the Civil War. As we went back and forth over the high and low points of his 1862 battles, I remembered something. “Hang on, his children died during one of the war years. Was it 1862? Could his personal life have affected his military leadership?”
“Oh…” I think it was a lightbulb moment for my colleague. We grabbed our phones and the race started to see who could find the tragic information first.
In January 1862, three of James and Louise Longstreet’s children died of scarlet fever. They were the three youngest children. Only their eldest survived. Yes, death from childhood illness was unfortunately common in that era, but that did not lessen the shock or grief for the Longstreets. Book length biographies address the tragedy, but it is not frequently mentioned in battle or campaign studies.
Certainly, it would be a mistake to infer that this tragedy impaired Longstreet’s military abilities. He returned to his command and seems to have focused on his duties as his way of coping (an expected outcome for that era), but it’s a piece of the story of his personal life that often is separated from his battles and leadership, lessening a reader’s ability to see his life story and war experiences more fully together.
We are humans. We need to be reminded that people in the past were human too. They really lived. And experiences influence. That’s why—in my opinion—it’s key to understand a historical person’s life, loves, faith, and motivations while we study them on the battlefield. Their choices and actions just might be influenced or motivated by facts that would traditionally be relegated to “civilian or human interest story.”
While I loved learned about the generals, I wanted to know about “Mrs. General” too. And that has become a key part of my research projects. Looking deeper at entire life stories to get a better sense of leadership incidents. Call it obsession? Call it wandering from traditional military history? I like to think of it as exploring the human experience a little more fully.