Edward "Mac" Coffman (1929-2020)
by Joseph Glatthaar
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.
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 in military studies, 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.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association or to the Society of Military History, which offers the Coffman Prize for best first book manuscript.