Rick Atkinson & History


This summer’s entry in the Todd Lecture series at Norwich University was Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson, former reporter for the Washington Post and author of several of books, most notably, An Army at Dawn, about the Invasion of Africa (which won him the Pulitzer in history), and more recently, The Day of Battle, about the invasion of Italy, both part of his epic trilogy on the events of the Invasion of Europe. In an already cluttered field of works on the Second World War in Europe, Atkinson’s books stand out immensely as some of the best books about the conflict, and the third book, of which he’s completed the research for, and is now outlining and writing, will be out in a couple of years, and will undoubtedly be a gripping read.

Atkinson spoke about an important and relevant topic to the history graduates before him: the value of narrative history, and more specifically, the need for a writer to recognize the value of a story within the heady analysis and synthesis of an argument. Personally, I find the division and outright snobbery of most academic circles to be frustrating, especially when it comes to popular and commercial non-history. Within history is a plethora of stories, values, themes and lessons to be breathed, learned and valued, and an essential part of education is bringing across the message to the reader or general audience in a way that they can comprehend and relate to the contents of any historical text.

Commercial nonfiction has its good and bad elements to it. Bringing anything to a general audience can water down an argument, and the balance between good stories and good history is one that has to be balanced finely. Some authors do this well, and from what I’ve read of Atkinson’s books, he has done just that.

Mainstream history is important. It is what helps to bring the lessons and analysis of the past to the people, and a population that reads and learns from their historians is a population that can intelligently call upon the past to make decisions for the future by comparing their current surroundings to similar happenings in the past. More than ever, this is important, and Atkinson’s talk and follow-up questions help to drive this point home.

Atkinson’s books are in the unique category of bridging the divide between academic and popular reading, and he noted that the failed to believe that history needed to be dry, uninteresting and irrelevant. History does not need to be relegated to only the academic circles, but it should be something that is in the foremost thoughts of the American population.

History is important, not just because of the lessons that are learned from it, but because of the mindset that is required to comprehend it. History is not a record of events gone past, but of the interpretation and story that those events tell. What is required from those who examine the field is an understanding of how a large number of events, political and societal movements and individuals all come together in a sort of perfect storm to create the past. Much of this is cause and effect, and contrary to popular belief, the past holds no answers for the future: it is the understanding of how said events occur, within their individual contexts that allow for the proper mindset to understand how similar happenings might happen in the future and how to prepare for what is to come.

Atkinson’s talk was a good one for students to hear, and different approaches to history are simply the nature of the field. The Military History students who graduated last week were ones that have a large number of options open to them, and Atkinson’s talk (and his own stature as a historian) demonstrated that a doctorate isn’t the only way to make a living at this.

You can watch Mr. Atkinson's talk here.

Structures in History

I'm continually astounded at just how few people really know how to put together a decent argument and work to convince someone of some basic fact or side of any sort of story, especially at a graduate school. I've always loved school, learning and writing, and when as part of my job, I was to take a graduate program; I jumped at the chance, entering a writing-heavy course that emphasized scholarly knowledge and being able to write a point down in a way that is designed to teach someone something new. History is so much more than merely an order of dates strung together; it is the interpretation of the events that happened at a specific point in time, designed to explain how said events occurred within a specific context.

Much of what I have learned at Norwich and elsewhere makes a lot of sense to me, in all manners of writing, from historical essays to fiction, and more and more, I've become far more aware of just how the structure of making a good argument can make or break the information that you're trying to convey. Frequently, I've been paying far more attention to the books that I read, people I hear and television that I watch, and find that structure is everywhere in how we are trying to do things, and I'm beginning to realize just how this has impacted how I view things far beyond writing.

Most crucial is the intent behind a piece of interpretation. History is never a clear cut set of events, and often, the actions of people long dead are used to prove a theory or point in how they relate to the present day, the event itself or some other element that relates to a historical point. Numerous times, I've seen proposals for thesis papers that don't set out to prove anything, but just examine a larger set of events in narrative form. When it comes to history, especially critical history, a straight up account of the events that transpired is the last thing that needs to be written about: it has no place, unless it's a primary source of some sort, as history, because it does not examine: it shows, but doesn't explain.

History is a way to interpret, and through that, explain what has transpired in the past. At a number of points, I've largely given up reading soldier biographies from the Second World War, not because their stories aren't important, but because they do not do more than cover that soldier's individual experiences and relate it to a larger picture. This is a general argument, and there are plenty of books that fall on both sides, but when it comes to critical history, the works of someone like Peter Paret are far more important and useful than those of Stephen Ambrose.

When it comes to the execution of the history, or any form of writing, one of the biggest issues that I've seen with my writing and others is that the argument is under supported by the evidence that the writer puts together. The basic structure of any argument is an introduction, where the writer puts forth their argument, and exactly what they are trying to prove. That introduction is then used to bring out the arguments that ultimately prove the point that the author is arguing, using evidence to support that basic argument. The conclusion is then used to tie everything together, utilizing the argument, what was found in the evidence. For some reason, this sort of format isn't used very much, either in schools, or in stories, movies, television shows, and it undermines what the author or creator is trying to do. Ideas and intentions are good, but when they fail in their execution, it doesn't matter how good the idea is; the entire effort fails.

I've found that I like minimalism, as an art subject, but also when it comes to writing. While there are plenty of writers out there who utilize a lot of words to get their point across, there is generally a purpose to that: they better explain what is going on, and help to create an environment that ultimately helps the book. When it comes to writing, of any sort, the main intent of any form of writing is to get the information across to the reader, whether it be fictional or coming out of real life. In that, every bit of historical evidence, from examples harvested from primary sources to other author's words and analysis, must go towards proving that article, without extra stops along the way for an extra tidbit of information. In critical history, the main point is often a very small, dedicated idea that seeks to prove a specific point within a larger context.

If I was to select one lesson that I learned in high school as the most important, I would point to something that my Three Democracies (and later American Studies) teacher, Tom Dean, taught me: Microcosm vs. Macrocosm, i.e., how a small event can be taken out and applied to a larger context. The experiences of three men in the Philippines during the Second World War highlight some of the atrocities on the part of the Japanese, or the career of a race horse in the Great Depression as a way to look at the changing lives of people during the 1930s are two examples of this sort of thinking, and it goes hand in hand with how stories should be structured. Every chapter should work to prove the point of the introduction, while every paragraph should be used as a way to prove the point of the chapter, and so on. Books, in and of themselves, should follow this sort of microcosm / macrocosm effect, to the end. to prove the point of the author.

Stories are important, for the information that they contain, but also for what they teach us at the same time. Amongst the years of history are countless events, occurrences and actions that all have reactions and continued impact on each other and indeed, the present day. The execution of how stories are told is how history is remembered and thus learned.

Major William Wells

Earlier this month, I travelled down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with two of our instructors, Dr. John Votaw and Dr. John Broom to prepare for an upcoming MMH program that we will be conducting a year from now. In the past couple of years, we've done two staff rides to Fredericksburg, to examine the Overland Campaign of the American Civil War.

A staff ride, briefly, is a sort of glorified fieldtrip that has been utilized by the armed forces for over a hundred years. Students travel to the battlefield, with a small amount of background preparation, and examine, from where events happened, how any given battle progressed, and look to the reasons for why battlefield commanders made the decisions that they do. The level of information that students can glean from this type of experiential learning - something, I might add, that was encouraged by Norwich University's founder, Alden Partridge - is immense, and I found that when I participated on one in Normandy, France, I gained a far better feel for just how and why the actions of the invasion happened the way that they did.

Travelling to Gettysburg will likely do all of this for those who participate. I myself learned much about the battlefield and the events that happened in July of 1863. For me, the Civil War was a major point in U.S. History, and I could tell you about the reasons behind the conflict, but very little about the actual battle, or its significance in the larger context of the war. Happily, this trip cured me of my ignorance, and brought about a couple of other surprises.

On Confederate Avenue, near Big Round Top, on our first day, we stopped at a statue of a man with a drawn sword - not a necessarily uncommon sight on a battlefield littered with memorials - memorializing the exploits of the First Regiment of the Vermont Cavalry. The man is Major William Wells, who participated in an ill-advised cavalry charge. After returning home, and looking over the pictures that I took, I began to look more into this one man.

The charge occurred on the 3rd of July, the last day of the battle, in the early evening. Wells was in command of the 2nd Battalion, and rode alongside General Farnsworth through the woods, where they made contact with the 4th Alabama Infantry and the 9th Georgia Infantry, and when they turned, ran into the 15th Alabama infantry. During the fighting that ensured, General Farnsworth was shot and killed, leaving Wells in charge of the battalion. He led his men to safety, and for his heroic actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Wells would continue to serve in the Union army throughout the rest of the war. Later that month, he was wounded at Boonsboro, Maryland, and again in September at Culpeper Courthouse in Virginia. By 1864, he was in command of the First Vermont Cavalry, and participated in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, and would eventually take command of the brigade and 3rd Division, and stayed with the Army until 1866, when he returned back to Vermont. Over the course of the Civil War, he had managed a successful career within the military, beginning as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1861 when the FVC was raised, to the rank of Major by the time of the Gettysburg battle, and was commissioned as a Brigadier General in May of 1865, based on recommendations from General Sheridan and General Custer.

The story doesn't end there, however. Upon his return to Vermont, Wells forged a successful business career in the state, managing a pharmaceutical company until 1872, when he was appointed customs collector for the state of Vermont by President Grant, and would return to his company, Wells, Richardson & Co. in 1885, as well as becoming the president of several other companies, such as the Burlington Trust Company, Burlington Gas Light Company and the Board of Trade for the city. He also became the director of the Rutland Railroad and the Champlain Transportation Company.

From 1865, he served in the state legislature, representing his hometown of Waterbury, and in 1866, he was elected by that body to serve as Vermont's adjunct and inspector general for the next 13 years. As Adjunct General, on July 13th, 1871, Wells travelled to Northfield Vermont, where he inspected the Corps of Cadets at 3 pm for their commencement. While this is the only reference that I could find of Well's interactions with the University, I suspect, that given his position and military record, as well as his proximity to the school, that he would have visited on other occasions as well. In 1892, Wells passed away suddenly at the age of 54, and was eulogized by the Burlington Free Press as "one of [Burlington's] foremost citizens and the State of Vermont one its worthiest, best known and universally respected citizens."

In 1913, with money raised by the state of Vermont, a monument to the First Vermont Cavalry, with Wells at the top, located near where his unit operated during the battle. With veterans of the battle present, the statue was dedicated on July 3rd, with the dedication read by Horatio Nelson Jackson (the first man to cross the United States in a car, and Well's son-in-law), and various dignitaries spoke throughout the day. A year later, a sister statue of Wells was unveiled in Burlington, Vermont's Battery Park to similar fanfare.

This is a bit of a divergence from Gettysburg, but I was interested to find the connection to the State of Vermont, and to some extent, to Norwich University through this one, remarkable figure in Vermont history. While Norwich University certainly played its part in the battle (there is a book, called By The Blood Of Our Alumni: Norwich University Citizen Soldiers In The Army Of The Potomac, 1861-1865, by Robert Poirier, which deals extensively with that subject), it is the smaller stories that require a bit of digging that makes the connection all the more worthwhile. Undoubtably, Wells will be something to stop at a year from now, when we travel to the battlefields once again.

Sources: David F. Cross, A Tale of Two Statues: The William Wells Status at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Burlington, Vermont. Vermont History 73 (Winter Spring 2005), William A. Ellis, Norwich University, 1819-1911: Her History, Her Graduates, Her Roll Of Honor, V. 1., Google Books, accessed August 24, 2009, Page 170, William Wells Statue Inscription, Gettysburg, PA.

Residency: Part 2

Norwich's MMH Residency has since come and gone, and I have to say that it was one of the best weeks that I've had in a long while. This week was particularly special to me, because I had started as an administrator with the groups that were graduating this summer, while I walked with them for graduation. I and my March 2007 cohort mates were the accelerated residency group, who essentially graduate early, while still working on our final capstone projects.

The first three days were largely consumed by lectures from the six instructors that attended along with us. This was a change from last year, because we devided to forgo the presentations that used to make up residency in years past. I went to a couple facinating ones about maneuver warfare doctrine, methodology and a rather scary presentation on PhD studies and that entire process.

Seeing and meeting all of my students have really given me some insight into the student side of things. So frequently do I speak with students on the telephone or via e-mail, but rarely (only one of the students who was here was one that I'd met earlier) in person. This provided a fantastic look at how they react to the institution as a whole, while giving me a much better apreciation for what they go through. It wasn't a huge revelation, but a timely and helpful one.

For much of the week, I met up with my cohort mates for dinner and for recreation afterwards. Someone had the brilliant idea to bring along my copy of RISK, which resulted in a couple of really fun nights of beer and board games. While that was fun, it was a great time that I'll remember for a while, and it helped me meet a bunch of people who I'll likely keep in touch with for a long time. I certainly hope so, because there were some very good minds there, and I hope that we can accomplish something in the world with that.

Graduating was weird, because I've worked with this class since I started, and still have more work to do. When I went up on stage, I got a big cheer from my classmates, something that I wasn't expecting at all, and it threw me for a moment. For all of my worries, problems and depression over the past year, I seem to have been doing a good job, and that has cheered me considerably - while I see the mistakes and problems on my end administratively, I've been praised for the work that I do. I realized at that moment that I've been far too hard on myself. It's doubtful that anything is going to change, but it's nice to know that my work has really affected and helped people in this job. I just hope that I can continue to do so.

Leaving everyone was bittersweet. The week went by far too fast, and in my experience with groups, you will never get the same groups together at any one time like this. Real life takes people away, and moments such as this are singular occurances, which makes them all the more better.

Residency: Part 1

This week, I'm finally at my residency for my Master's degree. In March of 2008, I started taking the degree through Norwich University's School of Graduate Studies, working towards a degree in Military History. It's an online school, and every day, I worked with fellow classmates, but through Internet discussion boards and through papers that I wrote and submitted online to my instructors. It's certainly a different way of learning, but I've taken to it.

For every degree, we require that students come on campus, and this week's our week. I'm finally able to meet my fellow classmates, whom I've worked with for 18 months now. Beyond that, I'm finally meeting students whom I've worked with when I first started the program. I've talked with them since day 1 of the degree, and come Friday, I'll be walking with them across the stage. I still have some work to do after this residency (I'm an accelerated student) but the bulk of the program is over. I don't have classwork, just research, which is exciting.

Residency is proving to be a highly productive and entertaining week here. While in years past, we've required students to present their capstone, we've moved away from that this year, in favor of faculty presentations which seems to be pretty popular with the students. Overall, students are enjoying the time, and meeting up with my fellow classmates has been extremely fun.

The first two days have been made up of presentations - I've sat in on ones about military doctrine, the Battle of Kursk, the IRA and the Easter Rising, Roger's Rangers and Historiography and one on how to write and eventually publish a capstone paper. The rest of the week will be some rehersals for Graduation and our Academic Hooding Ceremony, then Graduation on Friday morning. I'm quite looking forward to that.