The Author’s Corner with Peter Macleod

McLeodPeter Macleod is Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada. This interview is based on his new book, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution (Knopf, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Northern Armageddon?

PM: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is the most important single event in Canadian military history. So for an eighteenth-century Canadian military historian like myself, it’s almost impossible NOT to want to write about the battle at some point.

Moreover, I found previous histories of 1759 to be deeply frustrating. There were many fine works by fine historians, but they tended be about the campaign and devote very little space to the actual engagement. I wanted to examine the battle in detail in order to understand how and why it turned out the way it did. In the end, I concluded that decisions by individual soldiers, sailors, and warriors, rather than the efforts of James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, determined the outcome of the battle.

At the same time, I wanted to trace the link between troops exchanging fire and the course of North American history. (Too many military histories simply assert that a given battle is important, without going into detail as to why.) So Northern Armageddon ends with chapters that portray the battle as one event in the transformation of the continent from a Native American homeland to a region occupied by two settler nations, the United States and Canada.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Northern Armageddon?

PM: American soldiers, sailors, and merchant ships played important roles in the siege and capture of Quebec in 1759. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was an American as well as a French-British battle, and influenced the course of American history.

JF: Why do we need to read Northern Armageddon?

PM: To understand how American sailors on the St. Lawrence River and American soldiers fighting a battle on top of a cliff in Canada helped to pave the way for American independence. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PM: I became an American historian as I researched and wrote Northern Armageddon. To my considerable surprise, wherever I looked in I had thought was a French-British-Native American battle I kept running into Americans. The Rangers and Royal American Regiment, I already knew about. But I had no idea that fleets of American merchant ships were sailing up the St. Lawrence, New England sailors were serving in the Royal Navy, and American soldiers were taking their places all along Wolfe’s battle line. Before long, I had reached the conclusion that the attack on Quebec was an Anglo-American operation that would not have been possible without American participation.

JF: What is your next project?

PM: Backs to the Wall: the Battle of Sainte-Foy and the Conquest of Canada, which will be published this fall.

The battle of the Plains of Abraham has an intriguing but little-known sequel. Six months later in 1760, the same French and British armies met again on the same battlefield. This time, the French won a dramatic victory and besieged the British garrison of Quebec. Inside Quebec, British morale collapsed. For a while, it looked as if they might take back the city and overturn the results of 1759. 

The Royal Navy arrived in time to break the siege and American merchant ships resupplied the garrison. But the French victory at Sainte-Foy reminds us that history is not graved in stone.  The Plains of Abraham may be an important battle, but if things had turned out differently in the spring of 1760 it would be a historical footnote.

JF: Thanks, Peter!


The Music of the Seven Years War

laxer-bagpipes-copyOver at Borealia, Daniel Laxer, a recent Ph.D from the University of Toronto, argues convincingly that music was an important part of the soldier experience in the Seven Years War.

He concludes:

Military musicians and their instruments were crucial to the experiences of soldiers and the outcome of battles in the Seven Years’ War. They were the vital conduits of social control, loudly broadcasting the orders of the commanding officers. This military structure was not employed by First Nations warriors, whose alliance was greatly coveted by both sides of the conflict, and whose tactics often relied on stealth and surprise.[15] The major battles of the war in North America utilized standing armies with military musicians. Drums, fifes, and bugles sounded in camps and while marching, and contributed greatly to the din of battle. Bagpipes proved their utility and were employed in subsequent conflicts by the British army. The prominence of military musicians would decline over the following century and a half, as armies changed their tactics with more powerful weaponry and mechanization. Yet in the Seven Years’ War, military instruments were integral because they allowed the officers to command and maneuver armies of many thousands of men. While the marching tunes were often cheerful, the enormous death and destruction wrought by the conflict was anything but; beyond the tens of thousands killed and wounded, entire towns such as Quebec were virtually destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Military instruments were part of the cacophony of destruction, shaping experiences of the war as well as the subsequent musical culture of Canada.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Len Travers

Len Travers is Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. This interview is based on his new book, Hodges’ Scout: A Lost Patrol of the French and Indian War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Hodges’ Scout?

LT: I first learned about Hodges’ Scout obliquely, as so often happens, while looking for something else in local records. I hail from, and still live in, southeastern Massachusetts, from whence also came many of Hodges’ men. While searching through local nineteenth-century town histories in connection with other events, I found references to a calamitous 1756 ambush in upper New York colony that included a number of men from my area. The accounts were vague and, as I discovered, seriously flawed. Curious, I began to follow the trails of evidence, and found that survivors of the fight had left clues to a much more complex, varied, and fascinating human story–stories, really–than simply an underreported scrape in the woods. Theirs were accounts of high hopes and frustration, of warfare in an unfamiliar environment, of a frightful, bloody encounter, of harrowing captivities and then, for the survivors, a difficult homecoming. So why had I never heard of Hodges’ Scout before?

But there were other questions. Most American colonial soldiers were volunteers; what had motivated them to be there? What did they think about their service; what did it mean to them? As the records of Hodges’ men reveal, a number of imperatives, by themselves or in combinations, prompted young New England men (and some not so young) to leave their secure coastal towns and enlist in provincial regiments – to become soldiers of empire in an international conflict they only partially understood. Some of Hodges’ men survived the massacre but endured long captivity, some for the duration of the war. Taken together, their stories illustrate the varieties of experiences awaiting the more – or less – fortunate victims of defeat in this hybrid war of European armies in wilderness environments.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hodges’ Scout?

LT: The story of Hodges’ Scout can tell us much about this particular war as ordinary young men–those without whom wars cannot be fought–actually experienced it and, for those who survived, remembered it. My chronicle of this “lost patrol” assumes that the lives and experiences of ordinary men and women in war are as instructive, and as compelling, as those of the “great.”

JF: Why do we need to read Hodges’ Scout?

LT: First, it’s ripping good yarn, if I say it myself. Because of my focus on the evidence of human experiences, the reader will encounter facets of this war not commonly addressed in standard chronicles. Throughout the book, I try to engage the reader in weighing the sometimes meager, sometimes contradictory evidence from which we attempt to make sense of the past. It is an exercise in historical forensics, if you like. And I feel these are stories worth retrieving, as the experiences of war, for the common soldier, are largely made up of events that rarely command public attention.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LT: I have been fascinated with history since grade school. I began my college career as a history major in the 1970s, and I was so taken with the academic life, and the prospect of immersing myself in a subject I loved, that I knew then that historical research, and especially teaching, was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help others to understand the value of history, and to enjoy it as much as I do – I hope I have been somewhat successful in that regard.

JF: What is your next project?

LT: I’m currently researching a new book project, concerning a dramatic 1723 encounter between pirates and the Royal Navy in the waters off southern New England, and the subsequent trials held in Rhode Island. Not only does the incident show why, contrary to popular film & fiction, pirates avoided tangling with naval vessels, but also signifies an attempt by Crown agencies, through anti-piracy measures, to assert authority over increasingly intransigent American colonies.

JF: Thanks, Len! 

Stephen Brumwell Wins 2013 George Washington Book Prize

From the C.V. Starr Website:

MOUNT VERNON, VA—One of the nation’s largest literary awards, the annual George Washington Book Prize, has been awarded to Stephen Brumwell for George Washington: Gentleman Warrior (Quercus, 2012).  An independent historian and award-winning author who lives in Amsterdam, Brumwell received the $50,000 prize on Tuesday evening, May 21, at a black-tie dinner at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Most of us think of George Washington as the victorious commander-in-chief and wise statesman, but Brumwell breathes new life into a younger and edgier incarnation of our first president—the feisty frontier warrior who engaged the French and their Indian allies in brutal border skirmishes, the tough mid-career officer who turned the Continental Army into the weapon that defeated the British Empire.  Even while Washington fought the redcoats, Brumwell argues, he relied on British models of military organization and gentlemanly behavior in shaping his distinctive style of leadership. 

The Washington Prize, honoring the year’s best book about America’s founding era, is sponsored by a partnership of three institutions devoted to furthering historical scholarship: Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It particularly recognizes well-written books that speak to general audiences and contribute to a broad public understanding of the American past.

“Stephen Brumwell’s book is a pleasure to read from the very first pages, when he puts you right there, literally looking down the sights of a rifle held by a British officer who’s about to decide whether to kill George Washington,” said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize. “He brings the frontier military experience to life—the vermin, the floggings, the constant fear of ambush and massacre. And readers get a vivid sense of Washington himself as a creation of eighteenth-century military culture.” 

George Washington: Gentleman Warrior is a wonderful read and the scholarship is deeply impressive—Stephen Brumwell was way down in the scholarly weeds sorting out things most eighteenth-century specialists don’t know much about,” added James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which funds the award. “I don’t know if we’ll get a Washington book this good ever again.” 

Born in Portsmouth on England’s South Coast, Brumwell worked for many years as a newspaper reporter before he went back to school to earn a Ph.D. in history. He is the author of Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe (Hambledon Continuum, 2006), which won the 2008 Society of Colonial Wars Distinguished Book Award and the 2008 Charles P. Stacey Prize; White Devil: An Epic Story of Revenge from the Savage War that Inspired The Last of the Mohicans (Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2004); and Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (Cambridge, 2002). He also co-authored (with W.A. Speck) Cassell’s Companion to Eighteenth Century Britain (Cassell, 2001) and has participated as an historian in numerous television and radio programs.   

The Washington Prize jury praised George Washington: Gentleman Warrior as “well-written and engaging,” and wrote: “In the hands of this fine biographer, Washington emerges as a flesh and blood man, more impressive than the mythical hero could ever be.”  

The Mount Vernon event also celebrated three other finalists for this year’s prize: Eliga H. Gould’s Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Harvard, 2012), Cynthia A. Kierner’s Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times (UNC, 2012) and Brian Steele’s Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood (Cambridge, 2012). 

“As Mount Vernon prepares to open a new national library for George Washington this fall, never has it been more important for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to honor and highlight the contributions of these important authors covering early American history,” said Curtis Viebranz, president of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Finalists were selected by a three-person jury of distinguished American historians: Carol Berkin, Presidential Professor of History Emerita at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, who served as Chair; Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography and professor of English at Dartmouth College; and Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Emeritus in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and Senior Research Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. Brumwell’s book was named the ultimate winner by a panel of representatives from each of the three institutions that sponsor the prize, plus historian Barbara Oberg of Princeton University.

Teacher Scholarships for Ft. Ticonderoga War College

Teachers:  This looks like a great opportunity.  Speakers include Will Tatum of the David Library, Paul Mapp of the College of William & Mary, and Len Travers of the University of Massachusetts.

From the Fort Ticonderoga website:

Fort Ticonderoga is pleased to announce that four scholarships are available for middle and high school teachers to attend the Seventeenth Annual War College of the Seven Years’ War May 18-20, 2012. This annual seminar focuses on the French & Indian War in North America (1754-1763), bringing together a panel of distinguished historians from around the country and beyond. The War College takes place in the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center is open to the public; pre-registration is required. The scholarships are available for first-time attendees to the War College.

Begun in 1996, the War College of the Seven Years’ War has become one of the premier seminars on the French & Indian War in the country. It features a mix of new and established scholars in an informal setting for a weekend of presentations related to the military, social, and cultural history of the French & Indian War. Since 2001, Fort Ticonderoga has provided scholarships for 53 teachers from across the country to attend the War College, and a total of 87 teacher scholarships to attend seminars and conferences at the Fort.

Teachers interested in applying for a scholarship to attend this year’s War College of the Seven Years’ War should download an application at www.fort-ticonderoga.orgby clicking on “Explore and Learn” and selecting the “Educators” tab. Applications are due by March 15. Successful applicants will receive free registration, two box lunches, and an opportunity to dine with the War College speakers at a private dinner the Saturday of the War College. Contact Rich Strum, Director of Education, at (518) 585-6370 if you have questions.

Non-teachers can register to attend the War College as well. The cost is $120 if registering before March 15; $145 after that date. Registration forms can be downloaded from the Fort’s website at www.fort-ticonderoga.orgunder the “Explore and Learn” tab by selecting “Life Long Learning” on the drop down menu and then clicking on the War College. A printed copy is also available upon request by contacting Rich Strum, Director of Education, at (518) 585-6370.

Historiann on Reeancting

In yesterday’s “Sunday Night Odds and Ends,” I linked to an interesting article on French and Indian War reenacting written by Nick Kowalczyk and published at Salon.  Kowalczyk takes a Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) approach to writing about reenacting.  He “embeds” himself in a group reenacting the Seige of Fort Niagara and offers a journalistic take on what transpires.

This article also caught the attention of Historiann, who has offered some very interesting insights into the whole practice of historical reenacting.  Here is a taste:

In Kowalczk’s telling, reenactors really are different from you and me, but does that explain the popularity of reenacting?  Some enthusiasts might make it their whole lives, but it strikes me that the desire to live in the past (if only on weekends and special occasions) is a wish more widespread among white men in particular than among others.  Something that I and others have observed before is that only some Americans romanticize the past, because the rest of us recognize how much more awful our lives would have been (holding race and gender constant).