Category Archives: Historiography

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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Of individuals and their eras

Lately the historical Interwebs has been talking about the new Grant bio by H.W. Brands.  I read his life of Andrew Jackson several years ago and thought it was pretty good, even if the availability of Robert Remini’s one-volume abridgment version of his multi-volume work made another popular Jackson bio seem a little superfluous.

The Grant and Jackson books are both part of a series of biographies which will constitute a complete history of the United States, with Brands using each individual exemplifying a particular era.  It’s a pretty interesting idea.

I wonder if you could do the same thing for a survey course, organizing each lecture around the life of some historical figure.  Could students learn history just by getting acquainted with individuals whose life stories reflect their respective time periods or subjects?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Pocahontas for early colonial Anglo-Indian relations with her first encounters with the Jamestown colonists, her capture, baptism, marriage, and eventual death
  • Jacob Leisler for the evolution of the colonial-English relationship in the late seventeenth century
  • Jonathan Edwards for the intellectual/religious developments of the early eighteenth century
  • John Adams for the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, with the emergence of his commitment to independence and the development of his ideas on government
  • John Sevier for the trans-Appalachian frontier, with his career as Indian fighter, leader of a dissident separatist movement, land speculator, and state governor

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David Barton wins HNN poll (if “winning” is the correct term)

HNN’s poll to name the “least credible history book in print” has come to a close, and David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies came out on top, just barely beating Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

What strikes me about the poll is that while all the nominated books are undeniably problematic, they’re problematic in very different ways.  Whereas The Jefferson Lies has become notorious for numerous errors of fact and interpretation, most of the HNN readers who left comments about A People’s History seemed to take issue with Zinn’s blatant partiality rather than with any specific claims in the book.  Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is almost in a class by itself, since its whole premise is open to question.

I also think it’s interesting that we had a string of high-profile accusations of plagiarism, fabrication of evidence, and other forms of scholarly malfeasance in the past several years, but none of the books involved in these scandals made the list of front-runners.

Anyway, they say any publicity is good as long as they spell your name right, so perhaps congratulations are in order.

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Rev War books are headed your way

Some new and upcoming titles I find worthy of note:

I’m going to be completely broke by the end of the year.

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Was Washington a military genius?

Gen. David Palmer thinks so:

Changes in technology over the centuries, as well as differences in geography and resources, make comparisons seem apples and oranges.  However, it is feasible to measure how well a general did with what he had to work with and considering the opponents he faced.  In that regard, Washington was an absolutely superb strategist, the best the United States has produced, ever.

Personally, I wouldn’t go that far; in fact, I think one of Washington’s own subordinates, Nathanael Greene, was a superior strategist.  But I would agree that Washington was a gifted strategical thinker, able to balance purely military factors with larger political considerations.

Palmer makes his case in a book published last month.

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American Hannibal

Arnold as depicted in a 1776 print. From the Anne S.K. Brown Collection of Brown University via Wikimedia Commons

As I continue trying to catch up on my reading backlog, I’ve just finished Benedict Arnold’s Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary Warby Arthur S. Lefkowitz.  It’s a fine campaign study, thoroughly researched and compellingly written.  I’d recommend it to anybody interested in the Revolution.

Arnold’s march across the Maine wilderness is the sort of stuff of which legends are made, as is the dramatic nighttime assault he and Richard Montgomery launched against Quebec.  The failed attack cost Montgomery his life and Arnold a wound in the leg—his first leg wound, actually, since he caught another one at Saratoga.

The Quebec expedition is not one of the Revolution’s better known incidents, which is a shame and also a little odd.  After all, the march was much longer and far more arduous than the Overmountain Men’s 1780 expedition to defeat Ferguson, as well as Washington’s retreat across New Jersey in late 1776.  Its relative obscurity alongside other Revolutionary episodes may have something to do with the fact that the attack on Quebec didn’t succeed, but I can’t help but wonder whether Arnold’s eventual treason might have something to do with it.  He was a remarkably audacious and inspiring combat commander.  When reports of his small army’s trek to Canada reached the Americans, they lauded him as a modern Hannibal; five years later, they were calling him an American Judas.  Had his Saratoga wound been fatal, he probably would’ve joined Montgomery and Daniel Morgan in the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes.

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