By Stephen Smoot
“Military history ought to be a vital component of a liberal education, one that prepares students to be informed and responsible citizens… Any use of military force is so consequential on so many levels that it demands serious contemplation and full comprehension by all those in a democratic polity who own some piece of responsibility for it.”
Two years ago, the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano and Thomas Spoehr used this quote from a work by Tami Davis Biddle of the US Army War College and Robert M. Citino. Their work comes at the end of a long stretch of years where academia allowed traditional military history to wither and die on the vine, preferring what it felt was the more worthy fruits of sociological study.
This attitude, unfortunately, is nothing new. Jay Luvaas, a noted long time military historian with the US Army War College, wrote in 1985 that “before the First World War . . . many in academic circles dismissed the subject as trivial and unimportant.”
Pete Taylor of Clarksburg, a “Civil War historian by training,” has strived to advance the work of thorough and diligent study of the wars of the past to discern lessons for the future. Mentored in his early career by some of the career’s giants, he applies decades of experience, study, and wisdom to edifying people today about how wars transpired in the past.
Taylor did not merely study military history, but also served. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1968 and went on three combat tours of duty between then and 1973. His duties included serving as “the Province Senior Intelligence Advisor in Kien Tuong Province of South Vietnam.”
Taylor studied and worked with two of the giants in the field of military history. Jay Luvaas’s works centered on two general themes. He studied the philosophy of war, as practiced by two of its greatest strategists, Frederick the Great and Napoleon. Luvass also wrote a number of books on Civil War battles with another mentor, Harold W. Nelson.
Taylor remembered the diligence of Luvaas, sharing that “he was a topographic historian. He made us walk the terrain with him” to evaluate the accuracy of battle maps and reports and learn to identify where modern construction had affected geographical features.
Lavaas and Nelson cast a modern eye on the assemblage of “every telegram, every report,” photographs, letters, orders, and other items compiled into the 128 volume Official Record of the Civil War. They explain how to sift through the subjectivity of the writers, usually officers who just ended a battle, to find military history truths from looking at multiple accounts.
Taylor also wrote regimental histories of units raised in Wisconsin. “What got me into that was a guy by the name of Stephen Ambrose,” he stated. Ambrose is considered one of the best of the more recent historians of the conflict. Taylor said that “Wisconsin raised 58 regiments.” Unlike Virginia, which produced a lengthy series on each raised for the Confederate States of America there, “only a handful were covered by regimental historians” in America’s Dairyland.
After several assignments in training and operations for the Army, Taylor retired. He moved to Clarksburg in 1994 and taught junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Robert C. Byrd High School for 17 years.
Taylor never stopped digging into history. “I went to DC the first week of March, right before COVID shut everything down.” he remembered. There, from archives he returned with approximately 1,800 photographed pages from military order books between 1861 and 1866.
These pages “gave me a day by day account of what happened in town,” meaning Clarksburg.
From his research, Taylor penned “A Civil War History of Harrison County West Virginia, 1861 – 1865 and Harrison County, Virginia (West Virginia) in
the Civil War 1856 – 1865”
Taylor explains that “The Civil War History of Harrison County (Virginia) West Virginia, focuses on the years just prior to and during the War Between the States. Despite the rich history of the region, no book had ever been written solely focusing on this area for that time period.” Proceeds from sales of the book support the Harrison County Historical Society.
It is natural that Taylor found his way to Harrison County, since one of his great history passions originated here. On January 20, just a month over 200 years ago, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was born in Clarksburg. His remarkable career and unique personality made his a rising young officer in the Mexican-American War and a master of strategy and military leadership for Confederate forces later.
Taylor has continued a tradition and teaching practice resurrected by Luvaas and Nelson, the staff ride. In these excursions, a senior officer educates others by taking them directly to battlefields to gain as directly as possible the experience of how fighting developed.
“I’ve led staff rides up and down the Shenandoah Valley,” he stated, also describing how he traveled into Pendleton, Grant, and Hardy counties to explain the movements of Union forces trying to contend with Jackson’s superior grasp intelligence and ability to apply it.
“West Virginia History Heroes,” as the announcement from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History states, “are nominated by historical, genealogical, preservation, museum, patriotic, or like organizations across the state.” The awards ceremony will start at 9:30 Am on Feb 21 at the Cultural Center.
Taylor has a traditional philosophy of history that 21st century intellectuals and academics have sadly abandoned. He states “I don’t like history used for political purposes,” especially figures, events, and ideas removed from the context of their times to make points of dubious accuracy or validity about modern social issues.
“History to the military is critical,” Taylor notes. He described a class he took once that discussed figures such as Napoleon and Hannibal, as well as their “military strategy and tactics at work.”
“We don’t teach it” in more recent times, he noted. “History has gotten away from that, which is sad.”