Review: William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake

William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017).

It’s fair to say that military history isn’t known for its commitment to social and political critique—at least not the kind of military history you might find at the airport. Autumn of the Black Snake offers much of what readers might want from that kind of book. It is unashamedly narrative-driven; carefully constructed for maximum tension and dramatic payoff; and there’s a fair amount of blood on the page too. But it is also designed to pose a challenge. Just what kind of entity was the newborn United States? From William Hogeland’s perspective, it was less an asylum of liberty than a super-powered successor to colonial land companies like the one that shaped the young George Washington.

No one familiar with Hogeland’s work will be surprised that his is a jaundiced twist on the guns and glory genre. He has situated himself as one of the foremost critics, outside academia, of the Founders Chic that—in the wake of Hamilton—remains a remarkably dominant paradigm. His heroes have never been generals or their snotty aides-de-camp, but those gentlemen’s sometime enemies: the boisterous yeomen of western Pennsylvania’s “Whiskey Rebellion.” Autumn of the Black Snake is, in a sense, a prequel to Hogeland’s book on the rebellion. The story he tells this time is the conquest—halting, contingent, and finally forgotten—of the Native-controlled northwest.

In the process, Hogeland weaves into his story accounts of pre- and post-revolutionary land speculation, the politics and ideology of standing armies and militias, and the ongoing machinations of British generals and imperialists on the new US-Canadian border. He also makes a sustained effort to include Native American perspectives, using the personal collaboration-turned-rivalry between the Shawnee Blue Jacket and the Miami Little Turtle to highlight differences in ideology and strategy. This book does not give a detailed portrait of Native life, but it does grapple with the possibilities and limitations of Native strategy—which is crucial to challenging assumptions about the inevitability of white conquest.

What I liked most about Autumn of the Black Snake, though, was neither the set-piece battles nor the tense negotiations, but the book’s abiding interest in bureaucracy and paperwork. In a way that academic histories often make more or less invisible, Hogeland demonstrates how layers of official and unofficial documentation can work to both obscure and reveal crucial political struggles. “Later onlookers would be able to deduce the deal they arrived at only via one letter and some fragments of Washington’s anxious notes to himself,” he writes at one point, “along with behaviors not satisfactorily explainable any other way.” Historians, but perhaps not all their readers, will know just what he means.

Creating an army, not to mention a modern state, is after all an unavoidably bureaucratic process—and it is that very bureaucracy that usually gives us our best access to what happened. Hogeland uses the stuff of archival texts, with all their idiosyncratic underlinings, deletions, and postscripts, to get into the head of enigmatic characters like “Mad Anthony” Wayne. And while modern documentary editions can be excellent at including these details, they’re often missed in older printed versions; Hogeland thus subtly underlines the importance of manuscript preservation and research, even while much of his account rests on the work of other historians.

I’m not familiar enough with recent work on the Northwest, or on Native American relations, to comment on how far Hogeland diverges from current scholarship there. But in terms of how it frames the Revolutionary Era itself, Autumn of the Black Snake owes a debt to Marc Egnal’s A Mighty Empire (1988), which found grand expansionist ambitions at the heart of revolutionary motivation. If recent and forthcoming  work in a political-economic, imperial vein succeeds in reframing the debate over the revolution, Hogeland will find himself in step with the historiographical times. As a storyteller of flare and ingenuity, perhaps he will also manage to bring a wider audience with him.

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One comment on “Review: William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake

  1. Jeff Bush says:

    An enjoyable and engaging read. Wonderful detail about many of the major players at the birth of the United States. Had a hard time putting it down.

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