Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Remembering a Most Generous Historian: E.M. "Mac" Coffman


Friend and Great Historian, E.M. "Mac" Coffman (1929–2020)

I shouldn't have waited a year to write this article, but Mac Coffman's death was late-arriving news for me. When I decided to study the American Expeditionary Force in depth his 1968 work, The War to End All Wars, was head and shoulders above anything else published at the time (late '80s) on that big subject. I called Mac at  his office at the University of Wisconsin and he picked up right away. We talked for hours. He told about his research, his own war service, about teaching military history at a highly politicized campus, and meeting Sgt. York.  He also encouraged me to dig deep on the subject of America and the Great War. When his dinner time came and he had to go, he concluded with a list of contacts of writers who had an interest in the area but from different perspectives, such  as Tom Fleming, Ed Simmons, and Page Smith. He told me to contact them and use his name as way of introduction. All of the historians he suggested turned out to be as interesting and helpful as Mac.

Lots of  additional material has been written since those beginning days for me—much inspired by Mac's landmark volume.  I know this because I've talked to many of those newer authors and almost all of them had pleasant memories of  meeting the man. Remarkably, almost all of them volunteered kind comments about his generosity. Their experience had been the same as mine. For almost 30 years I continued corresponding with him. He always gave me great advice and many ideas for articles on Roads to the Great War and the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire. Like many of his student and colleagues, I'll miss his joyful approach to history and his kindly nature. In preparing this article, I found someone had written a fabulous obituary for Mac Coffman. Here it is:

"Edward McKenzie Coffman, distinguished military historian and revered teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, died on September 16, 2020, at Thomson-Hood Veteran Center in Wilmore, Kentucky.  He was 91.

"Mac" Coffman was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky on January 27, 1929, to Howard Beverly Coffman (1895–1972) and Mada Pearl Wright Coffman (1894–1953). He attended the University of Kentucky where he was a member of ROTC.  He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate with a degree in Journalism and entered the U.S. Army as an infantry officer, serving in Korea and Japan during the Korean War.

Upon leaving the Army, Coffman entered graduate school at the University of Kentucky.  There he received his MA and PhD in History, working under the renowned historians Gerhard Weinberg and Thomas C. Clark, his major professor.  Coffman's dissertation and subsequent first book was a biography of Peyton C. March, U.S. Army chief of staff during World War I, entitled The Hilt of the Sword: The Career of Peyton C. March.  While researching at the National Archives for his dissertation, Coffman agreed to serve as research assistant for Forrest Pogue on his acclaimed multi-volume biography of George C. Marshall.  He drew on that research experience at the Archives for his second book, The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I, a volume that is still regarded as the standard work on the subject.


Still in Print, a Classic of Military History


Coffman taught a year at Memphis State University and then was recruited as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught for thirty-one years.  His classes on American military history were among the most popular on campus, often closing first in a department with exceptional teachers and huge enrollments. An early practitioner of the "New" Military history, Coffman's lectures moved away from the old-fashioned "battle a day" and offered insights into the lives of soldiers and their families and how soldiers reflected the society from which they came. His basic approach was to understand the military in institutional as well as personal terms, and to approach war from that same perspective.  Students applauded his breadth and depth of knowledge and relished his fascinating and often amusing anecdotes that enlivened his lectures.  The State of Wisconsin awarded him a citation for his excellence in teaching and history.

Coffman was one of the early practitioners of oral history, actually interviewing a black enlisted man in the nineteenth-century Army and a cavalryman in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia when he was a teenager.  Among his most prized interviews were those with Douglas MacArthur, Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the Philippine fight for independence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Benjamin Foulois, who was at one time the sole pilot in the United States Army, and dozens of general officers.  His greatest passions were interviewing World War I pilots and the spouses and family members of U.S. Army officers.

Coffman then embarked on a massive, two-volume study of the American peacetime army from 1784 to 1940.  The first volume, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898, brilliantly explores the institution and the experiences of enlisted men and officers.  Most novel, though, are his entire chapters on soldiers' families, which opened a fresh vista for military historians.  The second volume, The Regulars: The American Army, 1898 to 1940, actually surpasses The Old Army in its depth and insights.  Coffman emphasizes officers, enlisted men, and military families and exploits his trove of oral interviews that bring the world of the early twentieth century U.S. Army to life.  The book earned the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History.  His final book, The Embattled Past: Reflections on Military History, is a stimulating collection of published and unpublished essays over his career.

Over his career Coffman directed a dozen dissertations and taught scores more in seminars.  Known for his affable personality and an extraordinary memory for people, facts, and sources, his students were the envy of the graduate-student population.  Coffman's graduate students developed a rare affinity for him as a result of the warmth, decency, and respect they received from him while also holding them to the highest professional standards.  His scholarship and that of the graduate students whom he trained have assisted in enhancing the respect Military history has gained in academe in the last several decades.

Coffman also devoted extensive time to training present and future officers in military history and in shaping the way the armed forces utilizes history in its military education.  He taught numerous active-duty officers on a graduate level and served on the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee for six years and then as its chair for four years.  To this day he is the only civilian to serve as the distinguished military historian at the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S Army Military History Institute and Army War College, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  Over his career he was honored with the Commander's Award for Public Service, Outstanding Civilian Award, and Distinguished Civilian Service Award from the U.S. Army.

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his social history of the peacetime army, Coffman was president of the Society for Military History and received the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement in the field.  He also was awarded the Spencer Tucker Award from ABC-Clio for outstanding achievements in the field of military history.  Coffman was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus at the University of Kentucky.

More than just a great scholar, teacher, and public servant, Coffman was beloved by his students, colleagues, and friends.  He was renowned at the Society for Military History annual meetings for his friendliness and generosity.  That warmth, kindness, and helpfulness to friends and strangers alike assisted in building an extraordinary atmosphere of congeniality and professionalism in those annual meetings that has survived to this day.

He enjoyed reading non-fiction and mysteries, played clarinet, and loved a wide variety of music ranging from fife and drum corps to jazz, with a particular fondness for Duke Ellington.  He was an outgoing and ebullient person who radiated gentleness.

Mac Coffman is survived by his wife, Anne, of 65 years.  They met at the University of Kentucky when she was an undergraduate student and he was working on his PhD.  He leaves three children: Anne Wright Coffman (Paul Schmidt), Lucia Hassen (Matthew), Edward Coffman (Danielle); six grandchildren; and eight great grandchildren."

Courtesy of the Milward Funeral Home 


 Bonus Feature:

Mac Coffman Meets Sgt. York


  1. Obviously I didn't know the man, but feel like I did after that obit. His 'The War to End All Wars' is one of my favorite books on the subject.

  2. It was a delight to read the story of one of the outstanding US military historians, Dr. Edward Coffman. His work,"The War to End all Wars" was suburb, weaving the skills of a "just the facts" play by play sports announcer with that of a great color commentator, giving us an excellent oral history background to the facts of history. His historical narratives not only gave us the skeleton of events, but put human flesh on the story of WW I and the story of the US Army since its founding.

    Reading "The War to End All Wars" made me hungry to read more of Dr. Coffman's works, especially his study of the Regular Army ("The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime. 1784-1899" and "The Regulars: The American Army 1898-1941").

    So many military historians focus on wars, with their battles and campaigns and give us little contextual background of the main characters who led our war efforts or studied the formation and development of our military prior to our wars that gives us deeper contextual understanding of these conflicts.

    Dr. Coffman's accounts of the Post-Revolutionary War and Pre-Civil War Army and the Post-Civil War Frontier Army and the Army in the Philippine insurrection and "banana wars" before WW I, were rich in rarely told military history.

    His coverage in "The Regulars: The American Army 1898-1941" covers the Pre-WW I Army as well as the Post-WW I Army prior to WW II, giving great color and background on US Army leaders in WW I and WW II and the circumstances that they encountered that molded their lives and careers.

    Dr. Coffman fills in the gaps in covering the US Army in US Military history that so many military historians fail to include in their monochrome war narratives. He gives context and color to other-wise rather dry historical tomes of many of his contemporaries.

    Dr. Coffman captures well the story of the Regular Army from its inception up to WW II. Anyone interested on some excellent history of the United States Army will find great satisfaction reading Edward Coffman's works.