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In Memoriam: John Drane Milligan (1924-2018)

Professor John Milligan, a longtime member of the University at Buffalo History Department, passed away on July 8 in his 94th year. Professor Milligan will be remembered by many generations of history students for his engaging courses on the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction as well as on race, slavery, and historiography and theory in history. He will also be remembered for his consistent support for high standards of instruction that sought to engage students in caring about moral issues, when and where they presented themselves in the study of the past. 

Students had no stronger advocate during the years of Milligan’s presence in the UB History Department. A man of strong but disciplined and understated social and political commitments, Milligan was able to convey his concerns for the world and the place of History in the efforts to improve the world without ever insisting that the price for gaining his respect and affection was that students or colleagues had to agree with him. Young faculty members had no better exemplar for conducting themselves with restraint than John, who was by example, rather than preaching, a very effective mentor.

John Milligan was born in New York City, but like his father, Carl Glover Milligan, who graduated with an Engineering degree in 1896, sought his education in the Midwest at the University of Michigan. After service in the Caribbean in the Army Air Corps in World War II guarding the Panama Canal, like many returning veterans Milligan was well into his twenties when he received his B.A. in 1952 and his M.A. in 1953. He went on receive his doctorate at Michigan in 1961, serving as a teaching fellow for two years while engaged in research on his dissertation, supervised by Dwight L. Dumond and Sidney Fine. 

The influence of his mentor Professor Dumond, who devoted his career to study of the antislavery movement, was particularly apparent. Dumond himself had studied under U.B. Phillips, a prodigious scholar who left a most complicated legacy. Very unlike Phillips, Dumond insisted on recognizing that the condition of African Americans “always provided the acid test of American democracy.”

Milligan came to UB in 1962, and taught consistently until his retirement over four decades later. His dissertation became the basis for his outstanding monograph, Gunboats down the Mississippi, which was published in 1965, and in a second edition in 1980, and which acknowledged his debts to the aforementioned scholars Dumond and Fine. Milligan was one of the first to draw attention to the importance of the fresh water navy and the neglected Union naval campaign that penetrated deep into the secessionist South along the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers in 1862 and 1863.The book continues to be cited by historians, most recently by Earl J. Hess, as a thorough survey of that effective campaign. Public historians have likewise drawn on Professor Milligan’s scholarship citing his work on information panels for the gunboat Cairo exhibit at the Vicksburg National Military Park. A subsequent study, edited by Professor Milligan, From the Fresh-water Navy: 1861-64: The Lett ers of Acting Master's Mate Henry R. Browne and Acting Ensign Symmes E. Browne (1970) was also devoted to the same naval theater.

His scholarship also included articles in the journals Civil War History and History and Theory, the latter of which deconstructed a primary source that contained explosive charges made by a Union naval officer who served on the inland waters. Professor Milligan rightly termed the accusations “sensational” and then proceeded to critically analyze the source in a truly dazzling article tailor-made for an historical methods course.

Professor Milligan’s intellectual specialization was military history, not the new military-and-society type of social and cultural history of warfare, but rather the older strategy-and-tactics type of military history. Several colleagues found Milligan’s engagement with military history difficult to understand. A gentle, soft-spoken man, who abhorred violence, some wondered what about war held an interest for him. The answer lay in his various engagements with the past. He believed in the Union cause as necessary to end slavery, and respected the men who saw it to success on the battlefield. His analytical interests were in questions of the assertion and rewarding of military leadership among individual officers, each in Milligan’s telling with his own singular and significant character, within the complex hierarchy that is a military institution. 

Milligan and his wife Joyce, who died in 2007, were participants, often in leadership roles, in many progressive causes within Buffalo having to do with opposing war, desegregation and racial equality, civil liberties, and social reform, and were active in a number of local and national political campaigns. The Milligans expressed their concern with racial justice in setting up the Joyce J. and John D. Milligan and Family Scholarships for under-represented minority students studying history at UB.

Professor Milligan leaves four daughters and one grandchild as well as former colleagues and students to remember him.

-Thomas M. Grace

A version of this tribute appeared in the history department newsletter of the University at Buffalo.

Posted: October 30, 2018
Tagged: In Memoriam