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Towards a More Total War: ‘Gentlemanly Warfare’ and the Rise of the Nation-State

One of the most controversial figures in the history of the United States is William Tecumseh Sherman. For his direction of a single campaign in the fall and early winter of 1864, Sherman has been reviled by nigh-half the country while providing military historians endless fodder for debating the origins of the philosophy of ‘total war.’ Even and perhaps especially for his detractors, Sherman’s strategy of destroying (supposedly) non-military and civilian resources is seen as somehow original, a new and innovative way of waging war that would come to dominate the twentieth century. There’s only one problem with that conventional wisdom: it’s patently ridiculous.... Read More
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Episodic History: Bryan’s Picks

In just a few days, Friday will see the premier of the much-anticipated movie Dunkirk, which tells the story of the World War II battle of the same name in which British and French forces were evacuated across the English Channel by civilian watercraft under the guns of the Third Reich. When done well, all of us here at Concerning History love seeing history on the big and small screens, as it seems to bring the past to life with a vibrancy and immediacy lacking in other media as well as powerfully impact public perception and memory of events. The number of history-related series on television or streaming services especially has blossomed in recent years. We all have our special interests, though, and can’t help but pine for some of our pet topics to get the attention we know they deserve. In what we hope will become a long-running series, I’ve decided to pull together a list of a few historical events and periods I feel would make for highly compelling or necessary television.... Read More
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Dueling Perspectives: John Keay and J.A.G. Roberts’s Histories of China

Some months ago, as Francis and I were discussing a potential piece for the blog, I realized I needed to brush up on my grasp of Chinese history. Perusing the shelves of my local library, I happened upon two promising volumes. The first, China: A History, was penned by esteemed journalist John Keay, while the second, A Concise History of China, was written by English academic J.A.G. Roberts. Faced with a more public, accessible volume on the one hand and an academic’s historical survey on the other, I decided to read them both and then compare them in a rare tandem review.... Read More
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Grand Prize, or Honorable Mention? The Case of American Settler Empire

Last week I undertook to unpack the question “What was history’s greatest empire?” In so doing, I discussed numerous possible criteria while refraining to ever actually answer the question. For those looking for my final answer in this post I make no guarantees you will be satisfied, but perhaps I can supply a more solid proposal than last time.... Read More
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Size, or How You Rule It? Determining History’s Greatest Empire

One fall morning in 2015, as I sat in my Training and Methods course in the Oxford History Faculty, my peers and I were pressed for the answer to a question rather unorthodox for a room full of academics: what was the greatest empire in history? Asked by the late, redoubtable Dr. Jan-Georg Deutsch, the question compelled us all to silence as we contemplated what was so obviously a trap, yet equally a tantalizing opportunity for debate. Boldly (perhaps one might say brashly), I ventured an answer that attempted to dissect the question... Read More
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Greater than Its Parts: The Prospect of Global History

The Prospect of Global History is different than any book I have reviewed thus far. Part manifesto and part proposition, its chapters do not generally seek to argue any particular thesis but rather to elaborate on the analytical framework of the subdiscipline and, through seven case studies, illuminate how that framework can be fruitfully applied across topics and eras.... Read More
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War on all the World: Starz’s Black Sails

The end of March brought with it the finale of the Starz series Black Sails. I’m a sucker for anything involving wooden ships and broadsides, so it was natural that I would eventually try the show out. As I began watching, all I knew was that it was a gritty pirate drama in the style of so many recent offerings from similar premium services. Imagine my delight when I discovered not a pulpy sensationalist naval warfare fix but a masterfully crafted historical drama.... Read More
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A Persistent Fiction: Myths of British Martial Prowess and Their Appeal

A few weeks ago, as I was reading Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire (which shall be reviewed on this very blog in four days), I came across a puzzling statement. In her prologue, Millard described the British army as “one of the most admired and feared fighting forces in the world.” Anyone familiar with the ersatz history of the British army in Europe or Britain’s imperial holdings might look askance at such a dubious claim, but I thought little of it at the time save to raise an intellectual (and physical) eyebrow. As is so often the case, however, this inciting incident opened my eyes to more and more use of this or a similarly-worded error. I have since encountered it in material covering a diverse range of subject matter concerning Britain in the period of its empire, authored by historians spanning a wide array of training and background. Rather than composing a direct rebuttal of these claims of a superlative British army, I instead became preoccupied with determining the reasons one might buy into such an easily-refuted detail. What follows below is an account of my efforts and, incidentally, a fair amount of refutation in its writing.... Read More
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Crucible of the World: Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads

From its main title, one could be forgiven for assuming this book to be simply a regional study of Central Asia. Yet Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World begins with much loftier goals. Having been fascinated with the history of the broadly-defined Middle East in his youth, Frankopan asserts that he is here to posit a new method of understanding history: one that challenges European narratives of inevitable triumph and restores Central Asia to its place as the fulcrum of world history. In the process, however, The Silk Roads delivers simultaneously more and much, much less than Frankopan promises.... Read More