Hard Warrior – Pt 2
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my first book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995). I haven’t had much choice. Each of the last three books I’ve reviewed references The Hard Hand of War. So far this year I’ve received six emails from people who had just read the book and wanted to compliment me on it. I also received two other emails: one from a professor of religion who wanted to discuss the book from an ethics philosophy perspective, the other from a fellow who wanted to know why the book made no mention of Sherman’s 1864 removal of the women factory workers in Roswell, Georgia. (Answer: in my research I somehow missed the episode completely.) There’s Brett Schulte’s recent review of The Hard Hand of War on his blog. The book is the focus of an essay in James McPherson’s new volume, This Mighty Scourge. It also figures in a couple of recent pieces he’s done in the New York Review of Books.
That all happened serendipitously. The Hard Hand of War also appears in two books I’ve been reading by intention: Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) and Mark Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Harvard University Press, 2007).
A last data point. At a conference a couple of years ago I was having drinks in the hotel bar with several other historians (Brooks among them). To be precise, we were having drinks in the hotel atrium just outside the bar, because it was nearly midnight and the bar had just closed. A couple of grad students happened to walk by and, whimsical as Apollo, we invited them over. One of them stared at my name tag, obviously trying to remember who I was. This went on a little too long, and finally I said: “Hard Hand of War.” He brightened. “That’s right,” he said, adding that he’d had to read it for a seminar.
Bottom line: My first book is a standard work in the field. Ten years ago I was proud of that. Five years ago I found it oddly disquieting, because it was still the book for which I was best known and I was starting to feel like a one-hit wonder. The disquiet got worse in the years that have followed. Only in recent months have I recovered a sense of peace about it. But that’s a story for a different time.
What I want to do in this series — and I’ll have to write it on the installment plan or it won’t get written at all — is to talk about the book: its genesis, its place in the literature, and the prospect for a revitalization of the debate on the extent and meaning of the Civil War’s destructiveness. That last issue featured prominently in the OAH round table on the state of Civil War military history, and I’ll use this series to talk about that as well.
I hope this doesn’t come across as self-indulgent puffery. Thirteen years have passed since the book’s publication, and almost twenty since I began researching the dissertation on which it’s based. As other authors can attest, there comes a time when you no longer identify personally with a book. I passed that point a long time ago. Yet my one disappointment with The Hard Hand of War has been that while historians respected it, they didn’t really argue with it, and it’s argument — scholarly engagement — that really makes academic writing worthwhile. It’s starting to look as if an argument might be shaping up after all. I’ll use this series to think aloud about that.