William Hogeland is a writer and historian. This interview is based on his new book Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Autumn of the Black Snake?
WH: When I stumbled over the story of the first war this nation ever fought, I had strong feelings that its obscurity had to be undeserved. As I began to explore the story and its nuances, that impression only grew. Not I think its one of the two or three pivotal events of the American founding, and that both its importance and its strange obscurity are revealing of the deepest themes in American life.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Autumn of the Black Snake?
WH: Victory in the war of 1791-1794 to conquer what is now the Midwest — the war in which the nation’s army was first formed, against strong political opposition to forming a national army — ignited American empire. The desire of speculators and developers — George Washington is probably the most famous — to gain possession of that territory had been integral to American independence and American nation; defeating and removing the people of indigenous nations formerly occupying that region begins with the founding generation, and with the Washington administration, and is a hallmark of the republic’s founding.
JF: Why do we need to read Autumn of the Black Snake?
WH: It’s pretty hard for me to claim that anyone really needs to read my book. I hope the characters, action, and themes I’ve discovered in the story I tell will make it rewarding reading for anyone interested in the origins of the nation and the key issues we continue to struggle with today.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
WH: I began telling stories of the American past after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. I didn’t think that project would necessarily continue after my first book, The Whiskey Rebellion, so an exact “why” is hard to come up with, but I was interested at that moment in violence and terror in the American origin story.
JF: What is your next project?
JF: Thanks, Bill.