Civil Wars

A Perplexing Journey: David Armitage’s Civil Wars

I first encountered David Armitage through a textbook in my Atlantic World survey course sophomore year at Gettysburg. That book, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, is an outstanding bit of intellectual history. I still have it, packed away in a box somewhere, and it was likely one of the first inspirations for my eventual turn away from American history and towards a larger perspective. When I learned of Armitage’s 2015 history of comparative civil wars, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. While its contents didn’t quite live up to my expectations, Civil Wars certainly proved as intellectually stimulating as I’ve come to expect from this distinguished historian.... Read More
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Remember the North? Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World

If I had a dollar for every time someone claimed to be writing a book about an “unknown,” “overlooked,” or “forgotten” period of history, I would be a very rich man. So often, these periods really aren’t that underserved, and we’ve even at times considered putting together a post listing the most regularly talked about “forgotten” periods of history. When I came across Michael Pye’s Edge of the World, however, I thought I had hit the jackpot. I have a soft spot for histories of the early Middle Ages (sometimes known as the Dark Ages), and few periods of history can claim more accurately to be unknown, as we must work from scarce written sources and physical evidence to reconstruct an elusive historical narrative of Europe’s rebirth after the fall of Rome. Even better, Pye promised to focus on a region lesser known in this period; rather than look for clues to our modern world in the court of Charlemagne or the remnants of Rome, Pye casts his gaze out into the cold world of the North Sea. Baited with prospects of a world system history of the North Sea in the early Middle Ages, then, I was practically salivating to begin reading. While entertaining, however, Edge of the World would fall far short of my lofty hopes.... Read More
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What’s in a World War? A Point/Counterpoint

What if I told you that what we know as the First and Second World Wars should really be known as the Second and Third, or even the Third and Fourth? Our habit of only identifying the conflicts that took place from 1914-18 and 1939-45 as ‘world wars’ betrays a modern arrogance, that somehow the world only reached the capacity for global conflicts recently, within the last century. My own work with imperial history has indicated that this is far from the truth... Read More
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Not Quite, but Getting There: Ian Barnes’ Historical Atlas of Native Americans

I admit, this seems like a strange choice of book to review. What can the possibly be to say about an atlas? Ian Barnes’ Historical Atlas of Native Americans, however, is more than simply a collection of maps; it is a general overview of the history of Native Americans from the Stone Age to the present, illustrated with artifacts, drawing, paintings, photographs, and, of course, maps. These elements, coupled with the intriguing state of being authored by a white, British, academic, called for reflection on their execution.... Read More
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Cutting through Muddled Memory: Murray Pittock’s Culloden

A few months ago, I delved into the history of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 through Jacqueline Rider’s Jacobites (reviewed here). My quest for greater knowledge was more than sated, though it came with a deluge of minute detail. Curious whether I could find a more engaging narrative of the ‘45, I recently turned to Murray Pittock’s installment on Culloden in Oxford University Press’s Great Battles series. A short work of barely more than one hundred and fifty pages, Culloden unfortunately flew wide of my mark, yet surprised me in the best of ways.... Read More
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Sweet, Sweet Nostalgia: Reaction and “Reform” throughout History

“Make America Great Again.” These four words have become one of the most infamous phrases in the English language since the successful presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, and with good reason. How do we define great? Who thought things were great? If we aren’t great now, when were we great, and when did we stop being so? Far from originating with Trump, this idea, that somehow the United States has lost its way from the glory of its just-out-of-reach past, has taken hold in the psyche of certain disaffected sections of its population. Though this reactionary sentiment may sound dissonant to the modern ear, it actually fits quite smoothly into a much longer historical tradition of cloaking nostalgic navel-gazing in terms of reform and progress.... Read More
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From Many, One Narrative: John Keay’s India: A History

I recently realized that, despite my familiarity with its later imperial history, I had little acquaintance with the history of India before the early modern era (and even that was pushing it). When I learned that, before his history of China (reviewed here), John Keay had composed a history of the South Asian subcontinent, I decided to rectify this situation. In so doing, I became perhaps the most aware of how difficult an undertaking such a history must necessarily be.... Read More
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Episodic History: Kevin’s Picks

Continuing with our series on eras and events that we think would make for great television, I’ve pulled together my own list of ideas. Make sure to check out Bryan’s and Ryan’s as well. The English Civil War—Enough with the Tudors! The rest of English history needs some love. Imagine a sprawling Game of Thrones-type […]... Read More
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Astounding Leniency: The American Civil War and Comparative Rebellions

Months ago, Kevin wrote a speculative piece reflecting on the implications of nineteenth-century concepts of ‘just war’ and their relevance today. Much of this discussion was centered around the American Civil War and the quandary of pursuing a war sharply so as to conclude it swiftly and limit suffering in the long run. Ideas of just war in the American Civil War were further complicated by the fact that the enemies of the United States government were fellow Americans. Or were they? The conflict was at its core a rebellion, and so perhaps it would be useful to consider the Union’s actions (and inactions) in that context. What were contemporary attitudes towards rebellions? What actions were considered justified in their suppression? And, most importantly, why did the United States pursue or not pursue those actions against its own rebellious citizens?... Read More
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Failure of Analysis: Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles

I’ve been fascinated with the small European wars of the eighteenth century for years, and writing my post from earlier this week on the continuity of total war (found here) gave me an occasion to brush up on that material. Accordingly, I dove into Philip Bobbitt's formidable work The Shield of Achilles. Integrating the studies of state formation and warfare in early modern and modern Europe, Bobbitt demonstrates the ways in which states’ constitutions (here the general manner in which a state is constituted and governed, not the formal documents) and strategies (loosely, the manner in which states wage war, rather than specific war plans) are intertwined, influencing each other and driving to different forms and heights. In so doing, Bobbitt attempts to argue for a certain dialectical view of history that, incidentally, results in his own prognostications on where the modern world is headed and the ways in which we should respond. I have never simultaneously loved and despised a book more in my life.... Read More