Bruce Charles Vandervort (1940-2020)
by John W. Hall with Blair and Vicki Turner
On 4 March 2020, the Society for Military History lost one of the most monumental figures in its eighty-seven-year history. Bruce Charles Vandervort was born on 28 April 1940 in Sparta, Wisconsin, just southwest of Camp McCoy (which would soon swell with nearly 40,000 American troops and over 6,000 prisoners of war). Bruce’s early life revolved around the camp; he grew up outside tiny Warrens to its northeast, attended primary school in tinier Kirby to its east, and went to high school in the Wisconsin metropolis of Tomah (population 5,321 in 1960) to its southeast. Whether Camp McCoy drove Bruce toward the military or away from the Army is unknown; he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school.
His tour up, Bruce received a bachelor’s degree in history at La Crosse State College (later UW-La Crosse) in 1965 and, only a year later, a master’s at the University of Cincinnati. He subsequently returned to his home state to pursue a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. The pursuit took longer than expected. A Fulbright to France implanted in Bruce a taste for things finer than Friday-night fish fries, and by 1972 he was living in Geneva, Switzerland, where he plied his imposing skills as a writer (ultimately as a freelance journalist) and fell in love—twice.
After a considerable, cosmopolitan hiatus, Bruce returned to graduate school, this time at the University of Virginia. In 1989, he was awarded a PhD in history for his dissertation, “Voyage Revolutionnaire: The Life and Career of Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922), French Labor's Apostle of Direct Action.” He began his academic career with a year at Wake Forest before moving on to the Virginia Military Institute, where he taught for twenty-seven years. In addition to his many articles and collaborations, Bruce wrote three books: Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914 (1998), Indian Wars of Mexico, Canada and the United States, 1812-1900 (2005), To the Fourth Shore: Italy's war for Libya, 1911-1912 (2012).
But Bruce will be best remembered for his editorial work for The Journal of Military History. He became its associate editor in 1990 and served as executive editor from 1999 until his death, by which time his name had become virtually synonymous with that of the journal. He was aided capably for more than twenty years by his wife, Wendy Vivian Vandervort (née Russell) of Leicester, England. Married to Bruce in Washington, DC, in 1984, she served as the Society for Military History business manager from 1990 until her death from cancer in 2011. Her passing left a hole in Bruce’s life that he filled by devoting even more of himself to The Journal of Military History. Indeed, even in hospice care, Bruce continued to carry out his duties as executive editor, verily to his dying day.
Bruce is survived by his children, Mark Cottingham, Emily Cottingham, Lucy Vandervort, and Nicholas Vandervort; five grandchildren; two sisters; a sister-in-law; and his nieces and nephew. He also leaves behind dear friends who recall that Bruce loved laughing hard, serial bottles of good wine, and stimulating conversation. Le Beau Bruce was known to march family and friends across half of Paris, in order to get to his favorite restaurant in his favorite arrondissement for what might turn out to be an unremarkable piece of fish. C’est la bonne vie. It was the experience that counted.
In recognition of Bruce’s inestimable importance not merely to his beloved Journal but also to the entire field of military history and a generation of scholars working in it, the SMH Council voted on 1 March to rename the Society’s “Moncado Prize” for the best article in each issue of The Journal of Military History in Bruce’s honor. Bruce passed only three days later after a hard-fought battle with cancer, but the Vandervort Prize will continue to honor the man who made The Journal of Military History the premier journal in our field.
Please share memories, stories and sentiments about Professor (and Editor) Vandervort below.