There’s an interesting new post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin distinguishes between two different types of Civil War unit histories. The first deals mainly with the engagements in which the unit participated, while the second deals with the social/political/economic backgrounds of the men who fought, and how these factors influenced their service.
Levin’s discussion of the role of context in unit histories has a context of its own—the “new military history.” It’s one of the most inappropriately-named disciplines out there, since this “new military history” has been around for several decades. It’s also a field that’s difficult to define. It’s easier to say what it’s not; it doesn’t deal with leaders, campaigns or battles. Its focus is on the wider social context within which battles take place. Levin’s second group of unit history is thus a fine example of the new military history.
Being the Rev War nut that I am, when I read Levin’s post I started thinking about how these issues relate to America’s armed struggle for independence.
I’ve long maintained that the historiography of the Revolutionary War is quite distinct from that of the Civil War, partly because the latter is so much more extensive. The scholarly literature on the war—the actual fighting, I mean, as opposed to the Revolution in its broader sense as a political, economic, social, and military event—is not nearly so extensive as many people would probably believe.
If Rev War scholarship isn’t that extensive, though, in the sense of the questions being asked it’s very vibrant. Scholars of the struggle between Britain and America have actively engaged social and other contextual questions. Take, for example, Charles Neimeyer’s America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, which contrasts the myth of the citizen soldier with the backgrounds of the men who filled the ranks. Or take Wayne E. Lee’s excellent Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War, which explores the factors that both restrained and exacerbated armed violence during the Revolutionary era. I might also mention a classic of the “new military history” which deals with an earlier conflict, Fred Anderson’s A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, which uses the techniques of the new social history to draw a portrait of eighteenth-century New England militiamen.
American Revolutionary soldiers, as depicted by a French officer. From Brown University via Wikimedia Commons
Interestingly enough, though, I’m having a hard time coming up with Rev War unit histories. There are plenty of regional studies of the war in specific areas, and of course there is a classic book by Hugh Rankin on North Carolina troops in the war. But monographs on particular regiments or other specific units of organization are harder to come by. I think the reason is simply that the Rev War hasn’t been investigated as extensively as other wars.
In fact, as I’ve said before, there is a dearth of “traditional,” meat-and-potatoes military historiography when it comes to the Rev War. Major battles and campaigns haven’t been investigated thoroughly, and significant figures lack modern biographies.
The good news is that those modern historians who have tackled battles and campaigns have brought the insights of the new military history to bear on them. Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard have incorporated quantitative methodology and a sensitivity to social history into their investigations of Cowpens and Guilford. David Hackett Fischer’s book on Trenton and Princeton employs the insights of cultural history to distinguish between American, British, and Hessian conduct in the field.
The Rev War historiography that’s out there is of a high order, partly because scholars are using it to answer old questions about what happens in line of battle. All the books mentioned above are stellar examples of the possibilities the new military history offers. Today’s best Rev War scholars are like the householder described in the first gospel, “which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”