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. Continue reading

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Guest Post: French Imposters, Diplomatic Double Speak, and Buried Archival Treasures

Today’s guest post is by Cassandra Good, Associate Editor of The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington, and author of Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Women and Men in the Early American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Follow her @CassAGood. 

Monroe 1The latest volume of The Papers of James Monroe covers a short but important period in Monroe’s life and career: April 1811 to March 1814. Monroe became Secretary of State in April 1811 and was tasked with trying to repair relations with both Great Britain and France. After war with Britain began in June 1812, his focus broadened to military affairs and included a stint as interim Secretary of War. The bulk of the volume, then, is focused on the War of 1812. However, there are a number of other stories revealed here that will be of interest to a range of historians. Continue reading

Hidden Bureaucratic Forget-me-nots and What to Make of Ubiquity

2015-01-07 15.49.56When wading through account books, muster rolls, and other dry military records, I don’t usually get a sense of the author—there might be a name jotted down, or maybe some distinctive handwriting, but hardly any evidence of personality. Reading through a 1758 orderly book from the Oneida Carry was much the same: a recounting of paroles, provisions, parades, and troop preparations. And then, curiously, tucked between the routine orders and work details, on the bottom of the 51st page:

When This You See Remember me.[1]

An—abruptly elegant—personal appeal hidden in the middle of a bureaucratic record, a record covering the various minutiae of one regiment of the vast British military apparatus but containing no information (other than a name) about the man who had chronicled them all. What on earth was it doing here?

This post began as a simple question about the meaning of private voices in the state record and quickly became something a little more meandering—tracing a phrase, finding its ubiquity in the British Atlantic, and then, in that broader context, pondering how and why it came to be on the page of an official military document. Continue reading

Guest Post: The “Scotch War”: Scotophobia and the War of American Independence

Today’s post is a guest post from Tim Worth, a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton. His thesis examines transatlantic Scotophobia during the late eighteenth century, and how ideas of ethnicity affected British and American images of empire.

The Scotch Butchery, Boston 1775, (London, 1775).

The Scotch Butchery, Boston 1775, (London, 1775). Lord Bute and the Scotch Junto instruct Highland soldiers to slaughter the inhabitants of Boston. On the left, a group of English riflemen drop their muskets in horror. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Over the past couple of years I’ve followed the fascinating Junto debate about whether or not we can see the War of American Independence as a civil war. Tom Cutterham and Christopher F. Minty have both put forward some excellent arguments outlining the strengths and weaknesses of this model. Whether or not we should use the term “civil war,” a great many contemporary writers often described the conflict as a tragic war fought between Britons. Today, I want to add a little more to this debate by breaking these Britons down into their component parts, and briefly examining how popular attitudes towards one of the ethnic groups we’re left with, the Scots, affected English and American ideas of the war during its early years. Continue reading

Edifying Terror: Publicity and the Problem of Punishment

Emily Merrill is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “Judging Empire: British Military Courts and the Politics of the Body,” explores the intersections of gender, military, and empire in the late eighteenth century by examining cases of bodily assault prosecuted by British military courts during the Revolutionary War.

The brutality of military discipline in the British Army, which regularly sentenced enlisted soldiers to severe floggings of hundreds of lashes with the cat o’nine tails for relatively minor crimes—such as drunkenness or not wearing their uniforms properly—horrified civilian observers in Britain and America alike.

What justifications did the officers who administered these punishments give for this customary treatment of offenders? Did they believe that these severe floggings would convince miscreants of the error of their ways, or instill in them a determination to reform their behavior? Or were they unconcerned with rehabilitation, seeking only to inflict suffering upon convicted soldiers in retribution for their crimes? Continue reading

Guest Post: Steven Elliott on Public History at the Morristown National Park

Today’s guest post comes from Steven Elliott, a PhD candidate in American Military History at Temple University. Elliott (@EastJerseySteve) is writing a dissertation about the American War of Independence, tentatively titled “The Highlands War: Soldiers, Civilians, and Landscapes in Revolutionary New Jersey.” He has worked for seven years as a historical interpreter at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, which is the subject of this guest post.

“The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” Freeman Tilden, NPS

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A depiction of the 1780 winter encampment at Morristown, courtesy of Morristown National Historical Park Collection.

Despite Tilden’s call to action, provocative interpretation at many National Parks remains a challenge, especially for Revolution-era sites. As many Americans learn (or re-learn) their history at public history venues, rather than through books or schooling, the Park Service can play an important role in bringing challenging interpretations to popular audiences. Yet, this can be difficult for Revolutionary-era sites, many of which were created to focus on “heroic narratives” emphasizing military campaigns and political leaders. In this post, I reflect on my personal experiences in attempting to challenge visitors’ assumptions about the Revolution, as a seasonal park guide at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, NJ.   Continue reading

Graphic Novels Roundtable Q & A: Ari Kelman, Battle Lines: a Graphic Novel of the Civil War

We continue day three of our graphic novels roundtable with an interview with historian Ari Kelman, who co-authored Battle Lines: a Graphic History of the Civil War. Previously Jessica Parr discussed using graphic novels to explore painful histories and Roy Rogers reviewed Rebels from Dark Horse Comics

Battle-Lines-coverAri Kelman is the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in the Civil War, Reconstruction, Memory Politics, and Environmental History. In addition to Battle Lines: a Graphic Novel of the Civil War, he is the author of two award-winning books. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard, 2013) was the recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the Avery Craven Award, the the Tom Watson Brown Book Award, and the Robert M. Ultey Prize. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans (University of California Press, 2003) won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize. Continue reading