Dr. Joseph L. Harsh has departed this life to join his daughter Laura, leaving behind his wife Trudy, his sons, their wives, and many grandchildren. He was a scholar and long-time Professor of History at George Mason University where he touched the lives of thousands of students and dozens of colleagues. His career and interests ranged from distinguished academic research and writing to horseshoe leagues and baseball. And for those of us who shared his obsession with the Civil War and especially the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Joe was a fount of knowledge, an inspirational teacher and a source of encouragement to attain new insights, information and interpretations. His three-volume study on Confederate strategy through the Maryland Campaign remains the best work on the topic, and has earned a place in the hallmark studies of any military campaign. Along with his family and legacy at GMU, his books are a fitting memorial to Joe’s ability, enthusiasm and intellect.
My personal experience with Joe, (and by the way so great was my respect for him that it took me 13 years to call him anything other than Dr. Harsh) , began in 1990 when my dean persuaded me to pursue a specialized program for doctoral community college faculty at GMU. My first choice was an education course, the first I’d ever taken. (Let me point out that Joe never took a course in education, and was the best professor I ever had.) I thought the education professor was awful, he will remain unnamed at this time, and I was ready to quit. Luckily for me that same summer catalog included a course called Touring Civil War Battlefields. Well, I thought, I know all about this, here is an easy way to pick up 3 credits without breaking a sweat. Among the many mistakes I’ve made in my life this certainly was not the biggest, but in many ways it was the most profound in terms of changing my life. From the minute we first met it was obvious I’d met a kindred spirit. It was also obvious that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. The best part was that Joe was a great “coach.” Instead of arrogance and pride, Joe demonstrated humility and encouragement. He had a gift for bringing out the best in every student, and his loyal following of students, affectionately known as the “Harsh Brigade,” speak to his abilities and magnetic personality. Those of you who studied under Joe may recall one of his favorite mantras; the three most important things in history are chronology, chronology and chronology.
By the end of the class I was “hooked,” I’d become a Harsh Brigade student for life. It was therefore a “no-brainer” that I would return for the second part of the course the following summer. Spending two weeks of non-stop study of battlefields while cramped into a 15 passenger van with little space for luggage and, after a few humid, 90+ degree days, a considerable amount of body odor, may seem like torture to many people. Because of Joe’s giddy excitement about what he was doing, the time seemed to fly by and the hardships were barely noticed. We were on the go from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. many days. Though physically exhausting, I never felt tired until I came home, collapsed and marveled at the planning he’d done, the unique experiences we’d had, the intellectual challenges he’d offered, and the wonderful people we’d met along the way.
I was truly saddened when it was over. I felt like a kid leaving Disneyland, I’d had a great time, and didn’t think I’d ever have as great a time again. Thus you can imagine my pure joy when Joe called to ask if I could help him re-structure the course for the next summer, and go along as his aide. Planning the tour, talking over the logistics, the guides we’d use and the places we’d visit was even more exciting than being a student. I was so excited I didn’t think to ask if I was being paid or not. Eventually I would make five more trips with him, and it got better every time. He allowed me to teach a few times, and gave me helpful critiques about what was useful, but never a criticism from him.
It was during these summers that Joe was working on his trilogy of the Confederate strategy in the Maryland Campaign. He sounded out new ideas and interpretations with me, many of which were so thoughtful and insightful that I was awed by his skills. He would often encourage me, and others, to stop and think, not just doggedly read and then speak. It was advice that has served me well. I rank among my highest achievements the fact that I was named in the acknowledgements of his books. Another proud moment was when he could no longer work and recommended me to teach his Civil War class at GMU. I was asked to teach the Battlefields course for a couple summers too, but I made it clear it was General Harsh’s Brigade, Col. Clemens in temporary command. We all stand on the shoulders of those gone before us, and Joe’s were very broad.
Joe and I spoke a couple times about the continuity of historians of the Maryland Campaign, almost like Antietam Creek flowing along touching many things, forever changing, but so constant in many ways. In 1965 when Jim Murfin published his seminal “Gleam of Bayonets” he mentioned two people most prominently in his acknowledgements. Both were members of the Hagerstown CWRT; Joe a founding member of that group, and he re-joined it in later years.
The first person was Louis Tuckerman, Professor of History at Hagerstown Junior College, who greatly aided Jim in his work. I got to know Louis when I joined the Hagerstown CWRT. I also am a history professor at Hagerstown, now HCC, and use the same office that Louis Tuckerman occupied over 32 years ago. (Without any renovation I’d like to add.) And to continue along the stream, I live across the street from where Jim and Nancy Murfin lived when they first married, met Jim several times, and got to know Nancy after his death.
The other person mentioned by Jim Murfin was Joe Harsh, whom he described as a promising young graduate student at Rice University, who was “a likely subject for future Antietam honors.” He could not have been more clairvoyant. Thus it has been my privilege to know these men who figured so prominently in telling the story of Antietam, and Joe’s books have surpassed the others to set the high water mark of scholarship on the subject. And it was Joe who suggested my editing of Ezra Carman’s manuscript as doctoral dissertation, and prodded me to eventually finish and publish it. I was so very proud and happy to place a copy of my first volume in his hands a just a few short weeks ago, and to let him know the creek is still flowing. Farewell my friend, until we meet again.
The Maryland Campaign, Volume II: Antietam book trailer
The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume II: Antietam
6 x 9, 16 photos, 63 maps hardback, 696 pages
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The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume I: South Mountain
6x9, 12 black and white photos, 19 black and white maps, notes, bibliography, index, hardcover, 576 pages
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