Dr. Edward M. Coffman
Sunday 27th of January 1929 - Wednesday 16th of September 2020
Edward McKenzie Coffman,
distinguished military historian and revered teacher at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, died on September 16, 2020, at
"Mac" Coffman was born in
Upon leaving the Army, Coffman
entered graduate school at the
Coffman taught a year at
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 His final book, The Embattled Past: Reflections on Military History, is a stimulating collection of published and unpublished essays over his career.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
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
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
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association or to the Society of Military History.
There will be a Memorial Service at 11AM, October 9, 2021 at Apostle Anglican Church, 200 Colony Road, Lexington, KY
Yesterday, I learned of the passing of Professor Edward M. "Mac" Coffman. I was never one of his students; however, he became a mentor and a friend over the years, particularly after I left the University of Wisconsin in 1980 and began to work as an editor with the Indiana Historical Society. I called on him for time to time while I was involved with the editing of two documentary editions: the Papers of William Henry Harrison, 1800-1815, and the Papers of Lew and Susan Wallace. Professor Coffman also gave me invaluable advice when I interviewed hundreds of war veterans from 1983 to 2003. He had an engaging personality, and he always found the time to talk to people from all walks of life. "Mac" Coffman's presence is sorely missed. None who met him will ever forget him.
Jack H. McCall, Jr.says
I have only recently learned of "Mac" Coffman's passage. To a young practicing lawyer who remained fascinated by history, especially military history, Mac was an inspiration and a mentor. I regret that I never got to thank him fully or properly for his influence on my own pursuit of history research and writing, and his great kindness towards my family and me. Please accept my deepest sympathy and prayers for solace to all of Mac's family, friends and colleagues across the years. He will not be forgotten. Peace.
I never had the opportunity to take a history course from Professor Coffman, but his reputation extended to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, where I received my B.S. as well as a commission in the U.S. Army. It was only a few years ago that I discovered Dr. Coffman's book "The War to End All Wars: The American Experience in World War I." I have read many books on World War I, but his book is by far the best one that focuses on the American contribution to that conflict. It is a classic text that is well worth reading.
I picked up his book The Regulars as an assignment for my dad's history project. I would have loved to meet him and I applaud his life and work for what he has done. Even though I thought it would just be some boring history assignment, I do indeed appreciate his work and how he made it a bit more bearable with his great penmanship. Good yard, Mr Coffman.
I was an undergraduate student under Professor Coffman, completing my senior thesis the year he retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin. He was a very demanding but compassionate professor and I still reflect on my time with him, which led me to discover he had passed away. The last time I met Professor Coffman was when he returned my graded thesis and gave me a book from his personal collection as he was moving from his office. Along with the book was a handwritten message inside which I have kept and cherished through the years. What a special person who will be greatly missed. God bless him and his family.
Professor Coffman taught me US History (1865 – present) at the UW in the mid-80s. He was engaging and as part of the class assigned us an oral history project. I interviewed my Aunt Irene and learned about life in the 1930s, including the family quarantine with scarlet fever and hardship of the great depression. I often attended Prof. Coffman’s office hours because I enjoyed talking with him. He hired me as a project assistant as he worked on his oral history of the American military, pre-WWI. I transcribed the recorded interviews he’d done with surviving veterans and found them fascinating. Prof. Coffman agreed to supervise my senior thesis and while it took us a little while to find a topic in which we were both interested, I ended up doing an oral history research project on WWII prisoners of war. Prof. Coffman connected me with the former POWs who I interviewed. Several said they told me stories they had never told their families. Under Prof. Coffman’s guidance I did my scholarly research and wrote a thesis of which I was proud. I had the thesis bound and gave a copy to mine primary interviewee, who eventually gave it to the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum, where it remains available. Prof. Coffman wrote letters of recommendations for my graduate school applications. We kept in touch for years but he retired and moved to Kentucky before I returned to Wisconsin. He was an inspiration as a history teacher, focusing on the stories of people to understand the historical era. He was a kind and supportive scholar. I appreciate the impact he has had on me and many UW students. May he rest in peace.