Joseph L. Harsh — A Tribute

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.

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  1. David Langbart
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    A giant has passed. I met Joe a cou­ple of times and he was one of the most wel­com­ing peo­ple I ever knew. I am grate­ful for the schol­ar­ship he left us and sad­dened by all the learn­ing and insight he took with him.

  2. Ron Dickey
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Tom, thank you for post­ing your trib­ute to Dr. Harsh. Obvi­ously, his intel­lect will be missed.

  3. Gene Thorp
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    How ter­ri­bly sad. Dr. Harsh pushed schol­ar­ship on the Anti­etam Cam­paign far into a new realm for future his­to­ri­ans to build on. So sorry to hear of his pass­ing, but grate­ful for all his hard work. Very nice trib­ute Tom.

  4. Don Gallagher
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    A won­der­ful Trib­ute. I’ve been wait­ing since “Taken at the Flood” for it’s equiv­a­lent on the Union side, I guess, in vain.

  5. Moe D'Aoust
    Posted September 16, 2010 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Touch­ing trib­ute Tom. I think I would have enjoyed him as well. Good luck tomorrow!

    Very best,

    Moe and Wanda

  6. Ed Flanagan
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I was at his “Lee at Anti­etam” sem­i­nar years ago and he was won­der­ful. He sug­gested a “McClel­lan at Anti­etam” sem­i­nar and have any­one hang out at the Pry House just like Lit­tle Mac. I’m glad Dr. Harsh signed my books. He had a won­der­ful smoky voice, he knew his stuff and I enjoyed his pas­sion on his talks and writ­tings about the Mary­land Campaign.

    He will be missed.

  7. Larry Freiheit
    Posted September 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink


    You are so for­tu­nate to have known and stud­ied with the best scholar of the Mary­land Cam­paign. I’m cer­tain that you will fol­low in his shoes.


  8. Posted September 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I grew up with the Harsh’s as fam­ily friends and while earn­ing my busi­ness degree at GMU I learned about and had a chance to attend “East­ern The­ater in Early War” as a mem­ber of the Harsh Brigade in the sum­mer of 1994. The energy, pro­fes­sion­al­ism, and prepa­ra­tion that Dr. Harsh, Pro­fes­sor Clemens, and the guest lec­tur­ers brought to this pro­gram made it truly the high­light of my entire aca­d­e­mic expe­ri­ence. May Dr. Harsh for­ever be at peace, and we great­ful for the hav­ing known him and for the work that he leaves behind.

  9. Steve Moriarty
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I took Pro­fes­sor Harsh’s grad­u­ate course in 1977. I already had a BA in His­tory at that time, so was some­what famil­iar with good his­tory pro­fes­sors. He came down from Mount Olym­pus, as far as I was con­cerned, and opened up a wide vista of new con­cepts for me. He was also a fine man, to whom I spoke sev­eral times after the course was over.
    A great intel­lect, a gifted teacher, and a fine man.
    I am sorry for his fam­ily, but glad that he is reunited with his daughter.

  10. Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    I was excited to find this web­site. I want to to thank you for your
    time for this par­tic­u­larly won­der­ful read!
    ! I def­i­nitely really liked every bit of it and I have you
    book­marked to look at new infor­ma­tion on your site.

  11. Susan Cruzan
    Posted June 30, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Harsh was the finest pro­fes­sor I ever encoun­tered in my years at George Mason Uni­ver­sity. I still talk about his class and our semester-long assign­ment to find, research, and tell the story of an obscure Civil War sol­dier (non-officer). The research and the class were liv­ing and breath­ing the Civil War. The sol­dier I researched was buried next to his offi­cer brother in Arling­ton. What I found at the National Archives of his pen­sion and his for­mer wife and their story was the stuff of tabloids. When deeply frus­trated try­ing to fig­ure out how he lost his leg and ended up as he did, I dug deeper. Piles of research later, I read that his group was asleep on a pick­ett in War­ren­ton VA. Mosby’s Raiders blew through. An amaz­ing story!
    I am now a teacher. Inspired by Dr. Harsh, I endeavor to find dif­fer­ent ways to get my stu­dents into their research and make it come to life for them. I was look­ing online to see if he would be involved for the 150th and found his obits and hon­ors. I am deeply sad­dened by his pass­ing. When we go to Get­tys­burg, it will be Dr. Harsh that I think of.
    Susan Cruzan Cohen

  12. Posted July 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    My brother sug­gested I may like this blog. He used to be entirely right.

    This pub­lish truly made my day. You can not con­sider sim­ply how much time I had spent for this infor­ma­tion!
    Thank you!

  13. Dat Nguyen
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Sad to know my most favorite and respected teacher dad passed away. I was in the Civil War class and enjoyed his lec­tures. Extremely nice and accom­mo­dat­ing such as Dr Harsh. His name scared me off at first but he was the oppo­site. Greatly missed!

One Trackback

  1. By A Giant Passing « Bull Runnings on September 14, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    […] with the sad news of the pass­ing of his­to­rian Joseph L. Harsh.  Read his trib­ute here and here.  Dr. Harsh will be laid to rest, fit­tingly, on Sep­tem­ber 17, the 148th anniver­sary of the event […]

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