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Dr. Joseph L. Harsh

I was deeply saddened to learn earlier this week of the passing of Dr. Joseph L. Harsh. Most readers of this blog, of course, know Dr. Harsh through his great landmark trilogy of books: Confederate Tide Rising, Taken at the Flood, and Sounding the Shallows, that trace the evolution of Confederate strategy to and through the Maryland Campaign, and provide the best study of that campaign that has ever seen print—and perhaps the most thoughtful examination of any Civil War campaign that has ever been published. In the acknowledgements section of one of my own books, I remarked, “Among my most vivid memories from my days at GMU is the crushing disappointment I felt whenever Joseph L. Harsh announced that his class on the Civil War and Reconstruction was over for the day.” This was no hyperbole.

“Big McClellan man!” was how Dr. Charles Poland described Dr. Harsh (he was and always will be “Dr. Harsh” to me), when I told him during the summer of 1988 that I was going to be taking the Civil War and Reconstruction course at George Mason University. Having cut my teeth in Civil War studies on Bruce Catton and just finished reading Landscape Turned Red, I thought I knew enough to think this did not bode well. But then Dr. Harsh closed the very first class by reading—with that distinctive, magnificent voice of his—a moving letter written by a soldier after his first battle experience at Fort Donelson. If there was anyone in that room that was not hooked or failed to realize they were in for a truly special experience with a very special instructor at that point, then they were beyond hope. Then, as if this were not enough, at the start of the next class meeting, he called me out to confirm that I was indeed the son of Diane N. Rafuse, who had published a short booklet on a historic house in Fairfax County called Maplewood during his tenure as president of the Northern Virginia Association of Historians.

Dr. Harsh then demonstrated over the course of that semester that he was a man with a decided preference for depth over breadth. The bittersweet experience of flipping through my notes from the class over the past few days has confirmed my recollection that Dr. Harsh did not even get to Gettysburg in his lectures. (While searching for my notes from Dr. Harsh’s classes, I also came across notes and work from my college math classes. Yeesh.) Instead, Dr. Harsh provided a thorough account of the coming of the war and an exhilaratingly detailed account of the military and political history of the first year and a half of the war in the eastern theater. The rest of the war was summed up in a final lecture in which Dr. Harsh compared how many miles Grant’s command moved and how many casualties it suffered in 1864-65 with Sherman’s forces during that same time, and left it to the class to draw its own conclusions about Grant’s merits as a general. Shiloh? Economic history? Vicksburg? Social history? Gender? Reconstruction? Memory? (Actually, he did spend a good amount of time on what was then called “historiography”.) Gettysburg? Civil Liberties? Atlanta? Whatever! That’s what the textbook was for!

Undoubtedly there were some who were (and on reading this, are) horrified that someone entrusted with teaching the Civil War to undergraduates would ignore such topics in their lectures. All I can say in response is, “You had to be there.” (At the same time, though, I consider myself exceedingly fortunate that I had already gotten the full war in Dr. Poland’s course at Northern Virginia Community College.) It was an absolutely fantastic experience. Usually, as an undergraduate, you have one eye on the clock during a lecture. Not in Dr. Harsh’s class. In fact, when the fifty minutes were up, it came as a cruel punch in the gut with my mind screaming, “We can’t stop now!” Now, I am sure there were students who were aware of the time and that they made all the noise one commonly hears a few minutes before a college class is over, but for some reason they completely escaped my attention.

He was an iconoclast to be sure—and reveled in it. But he did not buck the mainstream in Civil War studies simply for the sake of being contrary. This is not to say he lacked an irreverent streak—after all, this is a man who described the Anaconda Plan as the product of “Scott’s Dred”. Rather, his “peculiar notions” (as he recalled Ted Alexander labeling them in the preface to Taken at the Flood) and the confidence with which he espoused them were rooted in the simple fact that few, if any, ever studied in greater depth or devoted the level of thought Dr. Harsh did to his particular corner of the war—as was amply demonstrated to the world in his scholarship on the Maryland Campaign.

He was a member of a legendary group of Civil War scholars who did their doctoral study under the direction of Frank Vandiver at Rice University during the 1960s. He and the other members of this group (which included the likes of Emory Thomas, Thomas Connelly, and Richard Sommers) enjoyed particularly strong relationships with contemporaries who were studying with Vandiver’s friend T. Harry Williams at Louisiana State University. That there were points on which Drs. Harsh and Williams disagreed is well known, but this did not prevent Dr. Harsh from enthusiastically steering me to do my doctoral studies under Herman Hattaway, one of the most notable of the “wee Harrys”.

In addition to his accomplishments as a scholar, Dr. Harsh was a warm and generous man, whose love for history, enthusiasm for teaching, and considerable charm were evident to anyone who spent any time with him (the zest with which he sang along to a period band playing “Goober Peas” at a seminar in 1996 is indelibly stamped on my mind) and infectious. As a graduate mentor, he was rigorous and demanding both in the seminar room and when critiquing a student’s research and writing, but always generous with time, advice, and encouragement, which he delivered with an enthusiasm that was truly inspiring. A great writer himself, he demanded good writing as well and provided a model of it in his own work. He took great pride when his students did well and I can’t imagine anything gave him more joy in the past few years than to see Tom Clemens’s Carman book in print. It was evident in the summer of 2002, when, once again called upon to help out a student who had somehow made it to the faculty at West Point, he joyously regaled him and the cadets and instructor with whom he was he was doing a staff ride with tales from the Maryland Campaign.

And, of course, there were the maxims: “You can be a good Lincoln scholar or good Civil War scholar, but there is not time enough in the day to be both.” “Biography is the lowest form of history.” “No one should write about a battle unless they have studied the battlefield.” How many of these were original to Dr. Harsh, and how many he was passing along from his days with Vandiver, I will never know. But the curmudgeonly wit, wisdom, and spirit behind them when Dr. Harsh passed them on were unquestionably his own.

Still, I have to confess I always found him more than a little intimidating. Tom Clemens says it took him over a dozen years before he called him Joe. I never got to that point and can’t imagine ever doing so. That this is the case is undoubtedly, in part, an inherent product of the mentor-student relationship and peculiarities of my own personality. At the same time, as any one who had contact with him can testify, Dr. Harsh was a man who commanded respect and admiration through the force of his intellect and personal manner. He set high standards and, it must be said, rarely suffered fools gladly. His patience for those who, in his view, lazily parroted the conventional wisdom about the war was decidedly limited. Woe to you if he considered you a member of what he referred to as the “American Heritage” school of Civil War history! And as anyone who has read his published reviews knows, he could be sharp and devastatingly blunt when he felt someone had failed to exercise sufficient rigor in their thinking.

Of course, it was these very qualities that made him such an outstanding scholar, teacher, and mentor. The generosity with which he provided me with wise counsel, praise and encouragement when earned (however feebly), and censure and prodding when needed over the years is appreciated far beyond my ability with words to express. Still, I can think of no other way to close than by simply saying, for the reasons cited above and others that are not, “Thank you, Dr. Harsh.”

Comments (3) to “Dr. Joseph L. Harsh”

  1. Well said, Ethan. RIP Dr. Joseph Harsh.

  2. Very touching Ethan, I know Joe would have said you were making too much fuss over him, but your thoughts ring true to teh man. And don’t forget his other oft-repeated phrase, “History does not repeat itself, but historians constantly repeat themselves.” He will be buried here in Hagerstown on Monday, I will print out & pass on your tribute to Trudy andthe boys, who are now men!

  3. Ethan,

    An outstanding tribute to a one of the few genuine scholars. How lucky, Tom, and other were who studied under him. I met Dr. Harsh for the first and only time at Manassas when I spoke there to the Round Table group (1992?). We moved to a bar and I really enjoyed his company. If he truly was as proud of Tom’s book on Carman’s manuscript as you write, then I am especially proud in having played a part in publishing it. This essay just made my day. I am going home to smoke a cigar in Dr. Harsh’s honor. Thanks for writing it.