Tag Archives: Historiography

Neglected heartland

The Washington Post reviews Jon Lauck’s The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.  Lauck argues for renewed scholarly engagement with a region that has left an indelible mark on the course of American development and nursed quite a few innovative historians and historical institutions.  Looks like an interesting read.

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In book news…

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner best known for his work on WWII, is writing a trilogy on the American Revolution.

The Siege of Vicksburg is the subject of Jeff Shaara’s newest novel.

Finally, a new book on Dunmore’s War is hitting the shelves in July.  I’ve really been looking forward to this one; the publication date apparently got pushed back, so I’m glad it’s coming to the stores soon.

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Harold Holzer brings the war out of the vaults

The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer is one of the more engaging books I’ve received lately.  It’s neither a catalogue nor a popular history of the war but an interesting fusion of the two.

The book features items from the New-York Historical Society’s collections, arranged chronologically and illustrated in color.  The images are great, but this isn’t a picture book with the text limited to captions.  Instead, Holzer uses the objects as jumping-off points to explore various aspects of the Civil War era.  A wheel used to select names for the draft is the springboard for an examination of conscription, an 1864 campaign flag prompts a discussion of Johnson’s selection as a candidate for the vice presidency, and so on.  The chapters are short, but still substantial enough to give readers a nice little overview of the subject.

The objects run the gamut from a set of slave shackles to a portrait of U.S. Grant, from a John Brown pike to a manuscript copy of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Lincoln, emancipation, and the home front get particular attention, but the selection is broad enough to appeal to anybody who’s interested in the war.

This book gives you the same joy of exploration and discovery that you’d get from a museum exhibit.  You can read straight through it for an overview of some important aspects of the war, or jump around to whatever artifacts strike your fancy.  If you’re a museum junkie, it’ll be a welcome addition to your library.

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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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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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Things new and old

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.”

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Don’t fear the Dark Side

There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf.  Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.

Narrative history is one of those loaded terms.  When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher.  One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up.  The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.”  He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book.  He was referring to its narrative format.

Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis.  I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found.  The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better.  Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.”  And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.

Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t.  Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.

I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.”  In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout.  The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible.  It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively.  Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.

Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history.  Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique?  That raises some problems.  Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative.  Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.

Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location?  This, too, is somewhat problematic.  The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion.  Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did.  But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition.  Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on.  The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.

In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series.  And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.

I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side.  The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history.  There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history.  What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.

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