The Associated Press, February 23, 2014
HATTIESBURG, Mississippi — It started with a look at the records of the state lunatic asylum in Jackson, home of war vets and war widows in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Then University of Southern Mississippi doctoral student Allan Branstiter shifted his research to former asylum superintendent William Compton, whose strange political career saw him shift from Ku Klux Klan leader to Republican.
All in the attempt for this military veteran to examine the societal aftershocks of a devastating military conflict.
“History has been a way of making sense of my own experiences,” said Branstiter, who served in the Iraq War from 2004-05.
That’s a pretty good nutshell of what the USM Center for the Study of War and Society does, where traditional military history meets social history and its focus on the societal impact of war.
Now it’s entering a new era of funding and, with it, enhanced national reputation. “Best in Class” is the succinct expression of Beverly Dale, whose family name now graces the center.
Dale’s father, Lt. Col. John Dale, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, was head of the ROTC Program at USM from 1957-61 and 1964-66.
Beverly Dale, a USM alumna, pledged the lead gift in a $2 million fundraising campaign for the newly-named Dale center.
“You always want to help programs at Southern (Miss) that are excellent and make them more excellent,” said Dale, who declined to give the gift amount, stating that it was “substantial.”
The campaign officially kicked off Feb. 6, the night of ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ lecture in Hattiesburg, but it has been in a silent phase for over a year.
“We think it has the potential to achieve the status as the top academic program within its field in the country,” said Vice President for Advancement Bob Pierce.
More than a decade ago, there wasn’t quite as much fanfare when fellow USM professors Andrew Wiest and Geoff Jensen casually slapped the name Center for the Study of War and Society onto their branch of military scholarship.
Wiest said they didn’t know enough at the time to inform their dean of the change.
“We were dumb enough to think that all we lacked was a name,” said Wiest, who specializes in World War I and Vietnam War history.
Over time, Wiest said he realized the center could be a heavy hitter in the field of war and society scholarship standing right next to highly acclaimed programs at Ohio State and Duke universities.
“We realized it could be one of those places where Southern Miss could battle above its weight class,” he said.
There is something to that, it seems, as evidenced by the way the center has grown since then.
There’s now an annual lecture series sponsored by local doctor Richard McCarthy.
There’s a War and Society roundtable at the Hattiesburg Public Library that involves town and gown gathering to discuss a history book each month.
The Dale Lecture series — the one that brought Gates to Hattiesburg as well as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright four years before — is now housed in the center.
Oh, and books upon books published by War and Society faculty members. Wiest said the center, which has grown to seven faculty members, now churns out about one book per year.
“We produced as many books,” said Wiest, comparing USM to other top programs. “We had as big a scholarly reputation. We attracted the top graduate students, but what we lacked was any money.”
That is changing, thanks to the $1.6 million raised so far through the USM Foundation fundraising campaign.
The money will improve the center’s library holdings and fund scholarly research.
Most importantly, it will create and augment fellowships for graduate students that hopefully will lure them to Hattiesburg and not to bigger programs at Ohio State University.
“It’s kind of the money that allows you to compete with the big dogs,” said Civil War historian Susannah Ural, who received the first General Blount professorship in 2013 — an endowed professorship funded by USM alumnus Buff Blount that will allow her to finish her current book.
Faculty members have received their share of media attention.
Wiest’s book “The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam” is the basis for a new National Geographic channel production called “Brothers in War” that will debut in March.
He previously served as lead historian for the 2011 History Channel series, “Vietnam in HD.”
Ural has made several appearances on C-Span. She is one of three female professors who have joined the center in the last five years.
Graduate student Ruth White, who is working on a master’s thesis that explores the contrasting attitudes to the Civil War from residents in Vicksburg and Natchez, said the women have brought a fresh perspective on the field.
“What women have brought to the field is looking at gender, looking at culture, looking at these ideas from other disciplines other than just military history,” said White, who will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in American History, with a specialty in war and society.
Branstiter, who completed his master’s degree at USM in 2012-13, said that he’s excited about what the future can bring for the program.
“I decided to come because there were younger, forward-thinking faculty here really trying to push the boundaries of scholarship,” he said. “It’s great to think what they can do with this campaign. The next few years are looking really good here.”