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Military History Buff

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What is the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg? Which nations fought in the War of 1812? When were tanks first used in battle? If you know the answers to these questions, or want to know, you are a potential military history buff.

Military history enthusiasts study military history with a desire to find out exactly what happened and why.

"It's fun. You find things you don't expect," says Dave Love.

Love says military history buffs don't glorify war. They're not fans of death and destruction. Rather, they try to understand war. After all, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, Love points out.

"History, if you work at it properly, can go a long way to breaking down biases. It helps you consider alternatives," he says.

Let's consider the above examples. What is the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg? This battle was one of the bloodiest of the American Civil War. Led by Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, it was also the furthest north the Southern Confederate troops ever got.

The South was defeated by the North's superior firepower. With the loss, the Confederacy lost the chance of ever gaining recognition from foreign powers for their union. And from that point on, Confederate troops had only the strength to defend themselves, not go on the offensive.

Was this the turning point of the war? Did this lead to the creation of the U.S. as we know it today? Only military history buffs know for sure!

Which nations fought in the War of 1812? This war was fought between British forces -- in what is now Canada -- and American troops. The events leading up to the war are complex and varied -- even Napoleon was involved! It involved issues of borders and shipping blockades.

One of the reasons it is significant is that the war -- a series of battles -- was both the first and last time the two nations took up arms to defend their borders against each other. Is this why North America is a leader in the world today? Some military historians argue that it is!

And what about those tanks? Armored tanks were first used in battle by the British in 1916. Did this technology change the outcome of the war? That's something for military history buffs to figure out.

Military history buffs don't study everything to do with military history. That would be impossible! Instead, they tend to specialize in periods, regions or wars. What you study is up to you. So why not study something close to home?

"Most towns in North America have some sort of interesting military legacy," says Brian White. He is the volunteer director of the Halifax Citadel Regimental Association. At the very least, every town has a war veteran to talk to.

Lynn Berkowitz in Detroit has specialized in the study of Jewish Americans during the Civil War.

"A number of years ago I read an article mentioning General Grant's 'Order Number One,' which was an expulsion order for Jews living in the area of his occupation. I'd never heard of this and I wanted to get into it," she explains.

Military history buffs work alone or together with others in historical societies. They may also be members of a historical "round table." These are volunteer, nonprofit groups whose members share an interest in a particular subject.

Some enthusiasts collect historic artifacts associated with a certain battle or war. Extensive collections have been built out of weapons, bullets, pins, medals and belt buckles dating from a particular historic period.

Some buffs even recreate history! They dress up and perform in re-enactments of historical events. Using authentic clothing and equipment from a war or military campaign, they act out battle scenes with other enthusiasts.

Some 250 re-enactment groups, with 5,000 members, helped stage the battle scenes in the movie Gettysburg.

Chris Wattie is a member of a military re-enactment group. He's a private in the Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada. The group recreates the War of 1812. He got involved by attending one of the re-enactments.

"[I worked] up the courage to walk up to one of the guys and ask them about what they were doing. I've always been a history fan and 1812 was one of my favorite periods, so before I knew it I'd signed up and found myself marching around an actual War of 1812 battlefield -- it was so much fun I couldn't quit!"

Re-enactments help history buffs understand their subjects.

"Every now and then it's possible to get a real feel for what it must have been like for the young men and women involved in the events of 1812 to '14," says Wattie.

"There's a real thrill being on the same patch of ground where General Brock repelled the Yankee invaders, or where the redcoats mounted their bloody assault on Ft. Erie."

How do enthusiasts know so much about history? They work at it by doing research at museums and libraries. Both are sources of great information at little or no cost.

History enthusiasts also travel to the sites of famous battles. Civil War history buff Dave Smith says it's deeply moving for him to stand in the fields in Lexington, Kentucky, where Americans fought Americans in 1862.

"That holds a fascination for many Americans. I think that's why there are so many visitors to Gettysburg and so many of those parks."

An interest in military history prompts thousands of North Americans to visit First and Second World War memorials in Europe each year.

Enthusiasts estimate there are tens of thousands of people who are more than casually interested in the military events that shaped their country and the world.

There are about 200 round table groups across the United States with thousands of members studying the American Civil War alone! Several military history magazines are also being published.

Enthusiasts predict that the number of military history buffs will grow over the next 10 years as the population ages and the idea of sitting around reading starts to seem appealing.

"There aren't a lot of 23 year olds at round tables," says Smith. "People find us when they are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s."

It doesn't cost a lot to get into military history. Much of the material you need is free for the borrowing at your local library. However, Sidney Allison says many enthusiasts start collecting military history books and end up with a private library worth several thousand dollars.

"It's not all bang-bang," says Allison. "The study of military history is social history, political history and the study of families."

Anybody can become a military history buff. All it takes is an interest in the subject and the dedication to learn more about it. The only physical requirement might be a pair of reading glasses!

Some military history buffs can turn their interest into income. Some are published authors. Berkowitz has written one historical novel and published two non-fiction articles. Allison has written a book called The Bantams, the untold story of various regiments in the First World War.

Many battlegrounds have interpretive guides. This is the perfect job for a military history buff who wants to share his knowledge. Others organize tours to historically significant military sites in their area or abroad.

Military history buffs may also consider getting a teaching degree to teach history to others.

Getting Started

The best way to get started as a military history buff is to head over to your local library. Check out the military history section. Then curl up with the book of your choice and start reading.

"Go to the public library or archives and ask the local librarian for information -- books, articles, etc. -- on topics related to the local history. For example, World War veterans from the local area," suggests White. This way, you can educate yourself about your own hometown and its history.

"From there, contact a local legion," he says. "Most have youth groups and programs and can probably put [you] in touch with a veteran."

This is what historians call doing "primary research." Allison interviewed dozens of First World War veterans and their widows for his book, The Bantams.

He found that women are an important resource in any historical article because they remember who went where, who married whom, and where to find the photographs.

"Read everything you can get your hands on. Read a history book, then check the bibliography at the back and look up those books," suggests Wattie.

"But also, visit some of the hundreds of historical sites.... The staff just love answering all your questions."

Think about joining a military history club. Look for contacts through your local library and museum. You can also check with the chamber of commerce and veteran's legion. Or contact one of the groups below.

Last but not least, rent a movie! There are lots of good historical movies. Just be warned -- not all are historically accurate!


Texas Historical Commission
1511 Colorado St.
Austin , TX   78701


The History Net
Daily quizzes, and a good place to start general research

American Civil War Home Page
Everything the Civil War military buff ever wanted to know

Military History Institute
A great research tool, and a link to the U.S. Army War College

Victoria Cross Reference
The highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces

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