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Historian, Army officer hired to teach military history at UW-Madison

April 1, 2009 By Dennis Chaptman

John Hall, a gifted historian and an active-duty career U.S. Army officer, has been named the Ambrose-Hesseltine Professor in U.S. Military History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A Wisconsin native, Hall holds the rank of major and currently works in the Future Warfare Division of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command in Virginia. He received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina in 2007.

David McDonald, professor and chair of the UW–Madison Department of History, says Hall’s academic and professional qualifications will provide the department with an important new dimension.

“The first holder of a chair in military history named for two scholars with strong Wisconsin ties will be a Wisconsin native who has made a distinguished military career and whose first book addresses a seminal moment in the state’s history,” McDonald says.

Jeremi Suri, a history professor who chaired the search-and-screen committee, says Hall has an uncommon and impressive blend of credentials.

“In so many ways, he’s exactly what we need to make this a place to study and think about the military and its role in our society,” says Suri. “He’s going to help us think about the past and make it more relevant to the future.”

Hall, who grew up near Whitewater, spent four years as a cadet at West Point and returned there to teach from 2003-06, earning an Excellence in Teaching Award from the history department. He’s looking forward to re-entering the classroom as an assistant professor at UW–Madison.

“I’m thrilled by this opportunity. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is literally my dream job,” Hall says. “I’m looking forward to helping to rebuild a strong military history program that’s been recognized over time as one of the nation’s best.”

In 2009, Harvard University Press will publish Hall’s first book, “Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War,” which presents a groundbreaking new interpretation of the war, the development of the American military and relations with Native Americans in the first half of the 19th century.

“The combination of his professional experience to date and his continuing interest in Native American history provide us with an experienced and versatile expert in a wide variety of areas addressed by military historians,” McDonald says.

Although Hall’s primary research is immersed in the 19th century, Suri says his scholarship extends across the full course of American history.

“He is re-thinking basic concepts like the American way of war, total war and counterinsurgency,” says Suri.

Hall’s background as a historian and his work in future warfare issues are completely complementary, Hall says.

“It’s impossible to anticipate the future without understanding the past,” Hall says. “My work over the past couple of years has been helpful in identifying historical themes relevant to the future direction of military policy.”

James Kurtz, commander of the Middleton Veterans of Foreign Wars post, was a member of a group of veterans and veterans affairs officials who provided advice on the search.

“I’m a strong believer that the university needs a great military historian, and John Hall brings an interesting palette of qualifications. He’s a Wisconsin guy, he did great academic research and walked the walk at West Point and in the Army,” Kurtz says.

The professorship was established with a gift from UW–Madison graduate and famed historian Stephen Ambrose, who died in 2002. Ambrose named the professorship in part for his mentor, former UW–Madison professor William Hesseltine.