Category Archives: Historiography

Philbrick takes Bunker Hill

Like the name of the battle itself, the title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution is a bit misleading.  Just as his Mayflower covered more than the Pilgrims’ ship, his newest book is about more than the bloody confrontation at Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775.  He tells the story of the Revolution in and around Boston from the time of the tea party through the British evacuation in 1776. 

In Bunker Hill, Philbrick’s gift for narrative serves him well when there’s some sort of action going on.  The chapters on the war’s first day, on the titular battle, and the siege of Boston are where this book shines, although the best modern account of Lexington and Concord remains David Hackett Fischer’s masterful Paul Revere’s Ride.  It’s fitting that Hollywood has already taken an interest in this book, which is cinematic in its vivid characterizations, gripping battle passages, and rapid pacing.

The earlier chapters, which deal with the political maneuvering that led up to the shooting war, are not as strong.  Perhaps this is because it puts Philbrick out of his element.  He first catapulted to popular acclaim with a gripping account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, he’s at its best when he describes the experiences of men in deadly and dramatic circumstances.  Or perhaps this is simply due to the nature of popular narrative history itself, a genre in which character and action often take precedence over analysis.

Philbrick’s bibliography is extensive; he has read widely in the secondary literature on the Revolution in New England.  One of his contributions is to emphasize the role of Dr. Joseph Warren, whose critical place in the colonial protest movement is familiar to historians but less so to average readers.  Philbrick suggests that Warren’s death at Bunker Hill—he arrived on the battleground to fight as a common soldier even though the Provincial Congress had appointed him a major general—cost the Patriots one of their more able leaders, and he notes several points at which they might have benefited from his presence had he survived.

Ultimately, this is a good work of popular history.  If you’re new to the Revolution, or if you’re a more seasoned history buff looking for a refresher before setting off on a summer trip to Boston’s Freedom Trail, you’ll find Philbrick an informed and engaging guide.

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Andrew Burstein on historical dreams

The dreams of historical figures, mind you, not dreaming about history in the present day.  The essay is based on his forthcoming book, which looks pretty interesting.

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This historian gig is messing with my culture war

David Barton recently responded to Gregg Frazer’s critique of his Jefferson book in WORLD Magazine:

Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts, and this new attack by Frazer seems to suggest that this “debate” may become a never-ending discussion over less and less. With so many important cultural battles that desperately need our focused attention, it seems a misuse of time and energy to continue arguing over relatively inconsequential points with those who profess to hold the same common Christian values, so I will now resume my efforts attempting to beat back the secularist progressive movement that wrongly invokes Jefferson in their efforts to expunge any presence of faith from the public square.

I found this response interesting for two reasons. First, I think Barton is understating both the number and the seriousness of the issues his critics have raised. There comes a point where so many errors and misinterpretations accumulate that it’s not a matter of a few tiny nicks, but something more like the old Chinese punishment of death by a thousand cuts.

Second, what to make of Barton’s statement that defending his work against fellow believers is a misuse of time and energy?  Does this mean he’ll only be responding to “secularist” critiques from now on?  It almost comes across as a tacit admission that his historical writing is merely ammo for the culture war, and that he’s not really interested in teaching history for its own sake.

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The backwoods battles of the Revolutionary War

While Continentals, Redcoats, and militiamen were battling it out in the American Revolution, a related struggle played out on the frontiers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as settlers and Indians wrestled for control of the West.  This frontier war for land and independence doesn’t get as much scholarly attention as the conventional war to the eastward, which is why I was glad to see the release of Richard D. Blackmon’s Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier a couple of months ago. 

Blackmon demonstrates that colonial officials tasked with maintaining the Indians’ loyalty had long struggled with unscrupulous traders and land-hungry frontiersmen, and found their role even more difficult when those frontiersmen became rebellious colonists.  In the South, this responsibility fell on the shoulders of John Stuart, Superintendent for the Southern Department.  Both Stuart and his Whig opponents tried to secure the support (or at least the neutrality) of the southern tribes, which required supplying the Indians with the arms and powder on which they depended for hunting and persuading the tribes to expel agents working for the opposing side.

All-out war finally erupted on the frontier in the summer of 1776, after Stuart and his deputies failed to convince the Cherokees that a general assault on the settlements would only inflame white Whigs and Tories alike into reprisals.  The response from the Carolinas and Virginia was precisely what Stuart had feared.  Frontier militias rebounded from the attacks and marched into the Indian towns, burning crops and dwellings while engaging in battles with war parties.  These invasions of Cherokee country forced the tribe to trade land for peace, although a faction of warriors led by Dragging Canoe refused to lay down their arms and instead moved south to continue resistance against the settlements.

The Creeks, meanwhile, were divided over whether to join Britain’s war against the colonists, reluctant to take up arms without the support of British troops and supplies.  Pro-British Creeks did attack the Georgia frontier in 1778, although the Whigs kept part of the tribe neutral by supplying them with goods.  When British armies finally invaded the South, the Whigs faced the two-front war which they had long dreaded, but British military activity in that region was never as well-coordinated as advocates of a frontier strategy desired.

Ultimately, those Native Americans who cast their lot with England lost their military gamble, as British troops evacuated the southern posts they had been trying to maintain since the late 1770’s, leaving the Cherokees, Creeks, and other tribes at the mercy of an independent United States.  Although the war brought devastation and bloodshed to the frontiersmen (the Cumberland settlements in present-day Middle Tennessee and the Kentucky settlements proved especially vulnerable), it reduced residents of the devastated Indian communities to an especially precarious existence, and the final peace between the U.S. and England in 1783 proved to be a mere intermission in the contest for the West.

My only complaint about this book is a curious omission.  Blackmon’s description of the struggle between frontiersmen and Cherokees in 1776 is quite detailed, but it doesn’t really cover the summer attacks on the settlements in what is now northeastern Tennessee.  He does deal with the wrangling among Tennessee settlers, British officials, and Native Americans that preceded these attacks, as well as John Sevier’s later battles against the Chickamaugas, but readers interested in the early history of the Volunteer State may be disappointed that the siege of Ft. Caswell doesn’t get the same coverage as the Ring Fight, the defense of Boonesborough, and the Battle of the Bluffs.

That criticism aside, this book is a great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the American Revolution or the early frontier, utilizing both official documentation and eyewitness accounts of the major engagements.  Blackmon’s analyses of Andrew Williamson’s exploits and the negotiations at Ft. Patrick Henry are the best I’ve read.  Even if your knowledge of the war’s backwoods battles is extensive, it’s heplful to have a solid overview of the entire frontier war for the South in one volume, placed deftly in the context of the larger war as a whole.

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The long ’75

Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution is well worth your time, but possibly not for the reason the author intended.  His thesis is that it was not 1776 which was the critical year in America’s struggle for self-determination, but rather the previous one, since much of the groundwork for the colonies’ political and military success was laid over the course of what Phillips calls the “long 1775,” meaning the period from late 1774 through early 1776.  Having read his argument—and it’s not a brief one—I’m not entirely convinced that he’s made his case.  In the course of the attempt, however, Phillips covers so much material of interest that the book functions as a fine overview of the Revolution’s beginnings.

A longtime student of American political trends, Phillips devotes the book’s first section to the demographic, religious, economic, and ideological factors at play on the eve of the Revolution.  Religious affiliation, he argues, was an important factor in determining an individual’s allegiance; New England Congregationalists, backcountry Presbyterians, and low church Anglicans in the South were at the forefront of imperial resistance.  Tightening economic constraints were irksome to a growing colonial population plagued by currency shortages, indebtedness to British merchants, and restrictions on trade.  Seamen and laborers dependent on maritime activities were especially zealous participants in Whig mobs.  Frontier expansion was another source of ferment and division between western settlers and colonial authorities, complicating the efforts of both sides to draw on backcountry support.  Much of this background information will be familiar to readers who have read the work of scholars such as Patricia Bonomi, Woody Holton, and Gary Nash.

The book’s second section examines how the political, logistic, and military contests between America and the empire actually played out over the course of the “long 1775.”  Both sides had been moving toward armed confrontation for some time before Lexington and Concord, with de facto government and military power falling into Patriot hands across the colonies.  A key component of this early stage of the struggle was the contest for resources.  Americans scored a critical logistical victory in their effort to obtain gunpowder and other munitions, despite the trade restrictions imposed by the British in retaliation for the Continental Association’s import/export boycott.  British authorities, meanwhile, neglected their own logistical needs, causing serious problems for their forces besieged in Boston.  Raids by American privateers exacerbated these problems.

From a military standpoint, the British squandered a number of opportunities and committed a series of important mistakes in 1775 and early 1776.  Efforts by royal officials to enlist the aid of slaves and Indians only stirred up white colonists against British authority.  Raids on coastal towns, and threats to destroy these towns when supplies were not forthcoming, similarly made for potent American propaganda fodder.  British strategists neglected American vulnerable points while wasting time and troops on poorly-coordinated efforts such as the ill-fated expedition to the Carolinas, and allowing most of their forces to remain tied down in the demoralizing siege at Boston.  English attempts to obtain foreign mercenaries proved controversial at home, while the French and Spanish seized the opportunity to avenge their losses in earlier wars created by the American rebellion.

Patriots, meanwhile, enjoyed a number of military successes during this same period, as Whig militias acted to suppress Tory uprisings and makeshift American naval forces wreaked havoc on British supply lines.  Although Americans did lose their dramatic wintertime gamble to capture Quebec at the end of 1775, Phillips emphasizes the extent to which this campaign came close to victory, as British forces in Canada were stretched extremely thin.

During the “long year” of late 1774 to early 1776, then, the American Revolutionaries scored important military, logistical, and political victories that would help carry them through the disappointments and disillusions to come.  And since Phillips emphasizes how the Whigs had already taken de facto control of colonial governments, the eventual decision for independence comes off as anti-climactic, necessary only for diplomatic reasons and to shore up resolve before the massive British invasion of New York that same year.  But having built up the importance of the long ’75, he doesn’t spend much time demolishing the edifice of 1776, despite a few hints at how that year’s mythic status arose out of shifts in cultural memory after the Revolution.

Phillips does, however, demonstrate how the American successes and British missteps of the long ’75 gave the Revolution the breathing room it needed to mature.  Taken as a wide-ranging examination of the war’s formative period, this is one of the better books on the Revolution to be released by a commercial publisher in recent years, drawing on an impressive reading of the secondary literature.

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Two new American Revolution books

In his new book, Kevin Phillips argues that 1775, rather than ’76, was the decisive year of the American Revolution.  (Personally, I’d go for 1781, but that’s just me.)  Based on a quick appraisal while standing in the bookstore, this looks like a wide-ranging and meaty volume that’s well worth a read.

Jon Meacham also has a new biography of Thomas Jefferson out that’s gotten enthusiastic blurbs from some heavy hitters in American Revolution studies.

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Legitimizing carnage

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Recent years have seen a number of solid historical books on the scope of war’s destructiveness and the forces that either escalate it or rein it in.  Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War was one of the seminal works in this scholarly conversation; other contributors have included Mark Neely and Wayne Lee.  John Fabian Witt is the latest historian to examine Americans’ attempts to regulate and legitimize warfare in Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.  His portrayal of the history of rules to govern nations and individuals at war leaves the reader with the distinct impression that such rules have exacerbated warfare’s violence as often as they have reined it in.

The regulation of war has been an important force in American history from its very beginnings.  The American Revolutionaries prided themselves on adherence to the mores of restrained, civilized war that were fashionable during the Enlightenment, and with independence won, the country’s leaders expended considerable effort upholding the right of neutral shipping as a component of the law of nations.

War raised legal questions involving the behavior of individual soldiers and civilians as well as countries.  When American troops campaigning in Mexico found themselves subject to attack by guerrillas, and as U.S. reprisals against Mexicans threatened to escalate this conflict to frightening levels, the novel situation of dealing with military transgressions overseas led American commanders to develop important innovations, particularly the use of military commissions to try enemy personnel.

But it was the Civil War which proved to be especially fertile ground for the growth of military law.  In Witt’s portrayal, Lincoln and his advisers emerge as consummate pragmatists, shifting from one set of standards for conducting war to the other depending on the Union’s particular needs at any given time.  This flexibility led to some thorny contradictions; subjecting the Confederacy to a blockade was a convenient means of employing commonly recognized principles of the law of nations, but also made it difficult to prosecute blockade runners as illegitimate pirates. 

A thorough and systematic presentation of the rules governing Union armies emerged out of the messy nature of this war that was both a contest between parties claiming the status of sovereign nations and a rebellion by one section against the rest of the country.  The man responsible for crafting it was Francis Leiber, a Prussian immigrant to the U.S. and military philosopher whose notions of the boundaries of proper behavior in war differed markedly from those of most eighteenth-century thinkers.  Whereas Enlightenment thinkers believed that an army gained its legitimacy from its conduct rather than the cause for which it fought, Leieber argued that proper ends could legitimate extreme means.  Lieber was also a proponent of the idea that sharp wars were ultimately more humane because their severity convinced a foe to yield quickly and thus saved lives, a stance shared by some of the Union’s most prominent leaders (including hard war practitioner William T. Sherman).  When the Confederacy began incorporating partisan guerrillas into its regular forces, the Union government tapped Lieber to create guidelines for determining the status of prisoners.  In Dec. 1862, Union authorities turned to him again, this time to craft a more comprehensive code of regulations to govern the behavior of armies in the field.  The result became General Order No. 100, which turned Lieber’s notions of aggressive, pragmatic warfare into official Union policy.

This aggressive turn to the Union war effort developed alongside Lincoln’s policy of emancipation.  War had been a corrosive agent against slavery since the time of the Revolution and the War of 1812, but to Americans of the time, the loss of their slaves ran counter to contemporary notions of the sanctity of civilian property in war.  But the exigencies of the Civil War allowed Lincoln to take the extraordinary measure of freeing slaves in rebellious territory.  This extreme act, which prompted howls of outrage from earlier Americans who saw their slaves abscond with British armies, became justifiable within the framework of an aggressive war effort because it served a laudable end.  Emancipation thus conformed to Lieber’s concept of aggressive war measures legitimized by the goal in sight.

The same notion of aggressive war was practiced by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who upheld Lincoln’s use of war powers and the use of military commissions to try those accused of transgressing the laws of war.  Most of these commissions tried guerrillas and non-combatants instead of Union soldiers, and for a wide variety of offenses.  The pragmatic philosophy of aggressive war out of military necessity also lay behind Sherman’s destructive march to the Georgia coast and then into South Carolina.

Lieber’s Code outlasted the war it was created to regulate.  The expansion of the scope of military authority shaped post-war policies regarding the treatment of Lincoln’s assassins, prominent ex-Confederates, and the former Confederate states as a whole.  The U.S. also found an aggressive military code useful in dealing with Indians.  Whereas earlier American armies used the notion of Indians as outside the customs of civilized war to justify harsh measures against them, after the Civil War the use of military commissions legitimized the use of the death penalty against these enemies whose exact status was open to question.  Thus the code gave official backing to the killing of captured foes, an act that earlier armies had handled in an extralegal manner.  Similarly, American troops in the Philippines invoked the standards contained in Lieber’s code to justify an aggressive imperial war in that island nation, even as some of them transgressed that code with the use of torture, which Lieber himself had refused to include in his range of permissible behaviors.  And it was not only Americans who found in the laws of war a pretext for harshness, as European statesmen used the Lieber Code as the basis for a new body of international military laws.  Leaders of the strong, modern nations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries balked at the notion of circumscribing their armies with strict standards of behavior, but were open to Lieber’s more aggressive approach.

Witt thus puts the evolution of war-making during the Civil War within a broad historical context, both backward into the Enlightenment and forward into the modern era.  Lincoln’s Code demonstrates how the use of emancipation, military courts, the Anaconda Plan, and Sherman’s “hard war” developed out of questions that arose early in American history, and how consequential the Civil War proved to be on several different political, legal, and moral fronts.

Some of the most prominent recent scholarship on the destructive nature of the Civil War has emphasized that destruction’s limits rather than its scale; the “hard war” was an escalation, but it was neither wanton nor unrestrained.  Witt’s emphasis is more on what the aggressive code of war allowed than on what it prohibited.  Time and again, he explains how politicians and commanders found that laws of war actually magnified their power and the power of the armies under their authority.  Laws and regulations were ambiguous in their effects; they drew lines which armies are not allowed to cross, but the very act of drawing lines legitimized behaviors on the other side of them.

The law of war, as Witt presents it, has therefore served to give official sanction to the escalation of violence as well as condemn it.  In this age when American leaders are once again grappling with issues relating to soldiers, enemy combatants, and civilian populations, scholarly attention to the problem of regulating a government’s power to wage war is especially timely.  Lincoln’s Code is a comprehensive, readable, and incisive examination of this problem’s historical dimensions.

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