My Weekly Reader 6 February 2019.

When the War of the American Revolution began, the rebellious colonies had no real army with which to fight it.  The colonists had long relied up militias made up of part-time soldiers.  For the most part, these militias had been dedicated to local defense against Indian attacks.  The militia units from the frontiers had more experience than did the militias from the eastern territories.  They all lacked training, discipline, equipment, and—often—competent officers.

Still, a bunch of them had “seen the elephant” up close.  George Washington had a couple of experiences in the back-country, then had a memorable experience with General Edward Braddock’s catastrophic attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.  Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) had been a teamster—no very exalted position–on that expedition.[1]  Morgan differed greatly from Washington.  He was a poor-boy immigrant from New Jersey to the Shenandoah Valley.  He arrived with nothing but muscle-power, but there was great need of that on the 18th Century frontier.  He began to accumulate property: first a team of horses, then a farm, and later slaves.  Braddock’s expedition offered him his first taste of war.  It left him unimpressed with British military leadership and also deeply bitter toward British rule after he was severely flogged for smacking one of his officers.  Soon, Morgan became an officer in the Virginia militia and experienced at war with the Indians.

Morgan led a company of Virginia riflemen on Benedict Arnold’s expedition through the wilds of Maine to capture Quebec.[2]  The effort failed and many American soldiers were captured, Morgan among them.  He spent a year in British captivity before being paroled.  Upon his release in early 1777, George Washington promoted Morgan to colonel in the Continental Army and told him to raise a regiment of frontier riflemen.  Morgan led the regiment in the campaign that ended with the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (1777).  He and his men passed from this triumph to disaster in the Philadelphia campaign and wintered in Valley Forge (1777-1778).  In 1779, fed up with Congress and ts mismanagement of the army, Morgan stormed off in a huff to retirement.

Then Horatio Gates, who had commanded at Saratoga, took charge in the South.  Morgan initially declined the offer of a command.  When Gates led the army to disaster at Camden (1780), however, Morgan returned to service.  The new commander, Nathaniel Greene, put Morgan in command of a small unit.  His mission was to avoid a battle while harassing the British lines of communication.  In January 1781, Morgan disobeyed the order to avoid battle by setting a trap for a British light force under Banastre Tarleton.  The two forces collided at a pasture called the Cowpens in South Carolina on 17 January 1781.  Morgan’s adept handling of his militia led to a brilliant, small-scale victory.  The American victory had a disproportionate effect because Tarleton’s force—virtually annihilated in the fight—included much of the British light infantry.  This hampered Lord Cornwallis going forward in the Southern campaign.  It also set a pattern for a campaign of attrition that would end at Yorktown.

Plagued with ills, Morgan left the army soon after Cowpens.

[1] Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (1961) is still the best biography.

[2] See Kenneth Roberts, Arundel (1936).

Advertisements

My Weekly Reader 19 December 2018.

What we think of as the British Empire of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries did not yet exist in 1763.  It was aborning, however.  Britain had defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).  Britain then took possession of French North America between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  British North Americans saw their long-standing hopes of expanding beyond the Appalachian Mountains fulfilled.  These hopes failed at first.  The British Empire’s managers in London saw themselves juggling a diverse American community.   British “America” contained largely Protestants, mostly of Anglo-descent; Canada contained Catholic former French subjects; and in the Wilderness, the Native Americans offered access to the riches of the fur trade.  Containing the British North Americans offered the best path to peace and prosperity, especially after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) showed how difficult it might be to conquer the Native Americans.

The conflict crystalized in two remarkable figures.[1]  George Croghan (1718-1782), an Irish immigrant fur trader and land speculator, had become the vastly influential deputy to Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  James Smith (1737-1813), a Pennsylvania farmer, had been an Indian fighter and then became  a charismatic figure.  Both had lived among the Indians, and knew their languages and culture.  Their fundamental dispute gave human faces to the essential difference between the Anglo-American colonists and the British government.  Croghan saw the path to prosperity for himself and for the Empire running through peaceful trade with the Indians.  Smith saw the path running through driving away the Indians and expanding farming settlements.

To seal the deal with the Native Americans, in February 1765 the British dispatched a huge column of gifts to a peace treaty ceremony with Pontiac in the Ohio country.  Croghan added in many of his own trade goods from a desire to revive trade after the war and Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The Pennsylvania settlers[2] saw the presents—including rum and gunpowder–as the basest form of appeasement and as likely to provoke another Indian war as to forestall one.

Smith formed many of the settlers into an impromptu militia called “The Black Boys” after their use of bunt cork to disguise their faces.  The “Black Boys” tried to stop the caravans.  The 42nd Highlanders provided the hard core of the British escort, so the rebel settlers tended to steer around them.[3]  For a time, the rebels even blockaded Fort Loudon.  The British, short of supplies, abandoned the fort in November 1765.  Then peace with the Indians came and the “Black Boys Rebellion” died down.

In “Patriot,” Mel Gibson’s character announces that “the [coming] war [with England] will be fought not on the frontier or on some distant battle-field, but here among us…”  In truth, it was fought everywhere.  The wars on the frontier played a vital role in determining the American victory.  However, the frontier fights began well ahead of the formal “Revolution.”

[1] What follows is a part of the story told by Patrick Spero, Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776 (2018).

[2] Now in central Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, but then the far West.

[3] The 42nd had seen a good deal of service in North America, having fought at the first—disastrous—and second battles of Fort Ticonderoga, in the siege of Montreal, and in the bloody Indian fight at Bushy Run during Pontiac’s Rebellion.

My Weekly Reader 18 December 2018.

Today New England is a great place to go to college: stone walls, church graveyards full of famous men (and the occasional famous woman—repressive gender roles having been what they were), the leaves turning, “Whitey” and “Billy” Bulger of lore, the smart-mouth waitresses at “Legal Seafood,” Boston and Cambridge, with the Red-Line trains crossing from one to the other on a snowy night.  Then, in the 18th Century, New England was a hard place to make a living; the stone walls came from rocks dug out of fields with poor soil, churches reined-in human pleasure, people often died in the first few years after birth, the leaves turned because Fall came early and brutal winters followed close behind, Boston merchants would trade in anything (slaves, lumber, cod, rum) to make money and Boston fish-wives had famously sharp tongues, thugs had their uses for the better sort, and Cambridge’s college—Harvard–trained sour-puss Calvinist ministers.

No wonder then that many New Englanders were hard-bitten, judgmental, fond of pulling a cork, and avid for a better chance.  In a chiefly agricultural society, a better chance meant farmland, especially if they got to log-off and sell the timber first.  New England’s settlements spread along the coast and inland in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  Then westward toward New York, “down east” into Maine, and northwest from New Hampshire into the “New Hampshire Grants” (which would become Vermont).

Pioneers advancing into ground until recently commanded by the Native American allies of the hated French, the settlers of Vermont despised all authority that was not earned.  Before the Revolution, they resisted the colonial governments of both New Hampshire and New York.  The “Green Mountain Boys” began as the “militia” of those settlers who held land titles from Connecticut or New Hampshire rather than from New York.  They chose leaders like the ruffians Seth Warner and Ethan Allen.[1]

Came the Revolution.  Britain remained in control of Canada and might attack southward along a line that ran from Montreal as far as New York City.  Fort Ticonderoga—built by the French–commanded the invasion route along Lake Champlain.  Connecticut’s governor commissioned Ethan Allen to seize the fort from its British garrison.  Allen recruited 140 men after his own liking and headed toward “Fort Ti.”  He soon encountered Benedict Arnold and 70 men sent by Massachusetts on the same purpose.  Suppressing their mutual dislike in the interest of the common cause, the two men led their troops in storming the fort on 10 May 1775.[2]

Americans both despised the Catholic French Canadians and imagined that they wished to become “Americans.”[3]  Allen proposed an invasion, but the command went to another.  He free-lanced a coup to seize Montreal and spent three years in a British prison.  As a result of his imprisonment, Allen missed the Saratoga campaign (1777) in which Seth Warner played a notable role at the head of the “Boys” originally led by Allen.  Surrounded and cut off, British General John Burgoyne surrendered his army.   Saratoga was one of many decisive moments in the struggle for American independence.

In 1789, Allen died; in 1791, the “Grants” became the state of Vermont.

[1] Christopher S. Wren, Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom (2018).

[2] Later, the artillery captured at the fort provided the siege guns that drove the British out of Boston.

[3] It didn’t end there.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMEViYvojtY

My Weekly Reader 25 October 2018.

When the Second World War broke out, Americans—isolationists or not—expected a re-run of the First World War: a long pounding match.  Then the German army smashed into France in Spring and Summer 1940.  France surrendered and replaced the decrepit Third Republic with the collaborationist Vichy regime.  The French Empire in West Africa–nominally under the control of France, but vulnerable to German seizure–stretched westward into the Atlantic.  Brazil lay within flying distance of Dakar. Suddenly, Latin American affairs seemed of more than the usual importance in Washington.[1]

North Americans viewed South America as more than just a potential beach head for German invaders.  The continent held vast natural resources that might feed the Nazi war-machine.[2]  On its Caribbean shore, the continent abutted the shipping routes to the Panama Canal.  Moreover, the colonial heritage from Spain and Portugal–rather than American imperialism–made South America a politically tumultuous place.  Elites continually struggled with populists for control of the governments, and the armies of the continent did not always favor the “forces of order.”  To make matters worse, in the view of Washington, the region had received hordes of German and Italian emigres in the previous hundred years.  In the age of the “Fifth Column” suspicions ran hot.

As a result, South America became a battleground between the Axis and the Anglo-American Allies.  For their part, Germany and Italy hoped to restrict the flow of natural resources toward the United States and to enhance the influence of their emigrant brothers.  For their part, the Americans sought to build a Trans-Atlantic air ferry route to fly bombers and transports from Miami through Brazil to West Africa; they sought to monopolize purchases of raw materials, whose price spiked during the war and continued into the post-war reconstruction period; and they sought to squelch pro-Axis sentiment.[3]  Propaganda played a large role for both sides, although—like most propaganda—the effort availed them but little.

The Latin American countries were eager to profit from all this interest, yet they were not eager to be drawn into the war itself.[4]  Nevertheless, the turning of the tide led some Latin American countries to join the fight.  Brazil sent 25,000 soldiers to fight in Italy and Mexico allowed a small number of its air force pilots to serve against Japan.  In contrast, Juan Peron’s Argentina refused to engage in the war against the Axis until the very last moment.  Peron’s regime illustrates a number of the key themes.  He had served as military attache in Mussolini’s Italy; Argentina had received many German and Italian immigrants; and Argentina profited enormously from the spike in raw materials prices during and after the war.  Perhaps as a result, Argentina became the favored rat-hole for Nazi war criminals on the run, including Eichmann.

[1] Mary Jo McConahay, The Tango War: The Struggle for Hearts, Minds, and Riches In Latin America During World War II (2018).

[2] Henry Ford had established a rubber plantation in Brazil to insure the raw material for car tires.  He wanted to be free of dependence on the British Empire’s Malayan rubber during an era of bitter Anglo-American economic competition that was strategically forgotten during the Second World War.  On this fascinating episode, see Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (2009).

[3] This could go to what now look like shameful lengths.  Amends have scarcely been made to the Americans of Japanese ancestry who were evacuated from the West Coast, but who now remembers the Peruvian-Japanese?

[4] Rather like Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Turkey.

My Weekly Reader 21 October 2018.

There is a long-lasting illusion that Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union (“The Big Three”) had all emerged victorious from the Second World War.  A further myth holds that the war forged a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.  Neither of these myths is true.  First, Britain was defeated—heroically—in the Second World War: it was bankrupt, exhausted, and dominated by popular aspirations for a better life and dreams of lost grandeur.  Second, the British imagined that they could maintain international influence by mentoring the “immature” Americans in the ways of the world.  In reality, American leaders do not value Britain much except as a lever with which to move other parts of the world.

The decade following the Second World War should have made these realities clear to British leaders.  Britain abandoned the key parts of its Empire (the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, its advantageous position in China) because it lacked either the will or the power to hold them against rising nationalism; Britain received much American economic aid, while refusing to join the construction of “Europe.”  The United States dominated the conflict with Communism, both in Europe and in Asia.

Yet the British resisted recognizing reality.  They bristled when Dean Acheson said that Britain “had lost an empire, but not yet found a role.”  Britain held fast to one key claim to continued great power status: nuclear weapons.  Yet the independent nuclear deterrent formed another myth.  Britain could scarcely afford to develop weapons or delivery systems that could penetrate Soviet air-defenses, let alone in sufficient numbers to create an effective deterrent.  The coldly logical response would have been to unilaterally disarm in this one area, plow the money saved into conventional weapons that would have increased Britain’s real power, and merge Britain’s destiny with the movement toward European unity.  This they would not do.

C.P. Snow, a novelist with both experience in academic science and government, and a hard-headed approach to the world, played a role in this debate.  In Corridors of Power[1] he looked back at the critical mid-Fifties.

Snow tells the story of Roger Quaife, a youngish Conservative politician who seeks power both to be something and to do something.  The something he wants to be is a cabinet minister at an early age.  The something he wants to do is to end the British pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent and to ease Cold War tensions.  The botched Suez Expedition (1956) provides a particularly sensitive context.  Britain colluded with France and Israel to fake-up a war that “threatened” the Suez Canal in order to justify an intervention in Egypt.  The Americans then dragged on the reins.  In the aftermath, British politics became bitterly divided, “more even than after Munich.”  Quaife first maneuvers for a key ministerial position.  This makes him enemies among those who resent his rapid rise and methods.  His private life—he is married to a beautiful member of the aristocracy, but has a mistress—renders him especially vulnerable to his enemies.  His campaign against the British nuclear program seems to be shoving Britain yet further down-hill.  In the end, he is forced out of office and out of the public eye.  His former wife remarks that “It must be awful to have a brilliant future behind you.”  She might be speaking of Britain itself.  Not all war books are about wars that actually got fought.

[1] C.P. Snow, Corridors of Power (1964).

My Weekly Reader 18 October 2018.

Being born-out-of-wedlock was a major social disgrace for many centuries.  It is not so today[1] and it was not so in 11th Century Europe.  Duke Robert “the Devil,” duke of Normandy fathered a child with the presumably winsome Herleve, a tanner’s daughter.[2]

Their son, William “the Bastard,” claimed the title of Duke of Normandy after his father’s death during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  He made good that claim by a combination of favorable circumstances and his own remarkable abilities.  Chief among them were ability as an organizer and as a soldier, and a practical ruthlessness.  These qualities struck fear among those who opposed him or who might think about opposing him.  The latter group included his own vassals.  William also possessed a sincere Christian faith, marked by his generous donations to the foundation of churches and abbeys in his territory.[3]  This won him the support of the Church.

Early success at one difficult task encouraged him to raise his sights.  England lost the last of the ruling dynasty of kings (1066).  William set out to seize the crown for himself.  His chief rival for the crown, Harold Godwinson, faced multiple enemies.  Harald “Hardrada,” a Norwegian challenger, had added Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig, to his allies.  Godwinson had won the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, but Stigand was under a cloud with Rome.  As a result, William’s army fought under a papal banner as well as that of Duke William.  William descended up the shores of southern England just after Harold Godwinson had defeated the Norwegian invaders in the north of England.  William’s army defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066.

William’s victory began the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.  It took another twenty years before William had an unchallenged grip on the monarchy.  The English were not easily subdued in spite of the death of their own king at Hastings.  William’s followers[4] replaced most to the old aristocracy (called “thegns”).  William distributed revenue-producing lands seized from the English aristocrats to these followers.  However, he extracted a price: his version of feudalism gave the kings of England a tight grip on his vassals.  His unusually centralized form of government made both England and Normandy the best-governed territories in Europe.

Then his power as King of England increased his power as Duke of Normandy.  Later his successors would increase their power within France to the point where they could try to seize the crown of France as William had seized the crown of England.

William the Conqueror’s victories in England ended what is called the Anglo-Saxon period of English history.  It opened the period called Anglo-Norman.  It also began the long process by which England rose from a soggy little place of no consequence on the edge of Europe to be one of the five “Great Powers” that guided the destiny of Europe—and then of the world—from the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

[1] See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-17/almost-half-of-u-s-births-happen-outside-marriage-signaling-cultural-shift

[2] See the classic book by David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1964).

[3] Admittedly, he also plundered other such institutions, but this appears to have happened when those institutions supported one of his rivals.  As a result, church leaders were prone to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[4] He had recruited additional warriors from all over northwestern Europe to bulk-up his own Norman forces.

My Weekly Reader 17 October 2018.

During the 1500s, the “Wars of Religion” that accompanied the Reformation and Counter (or Catholic)-Reformation wreaked havoc on Europe.  One response appeared in the creation of “absolute” monarchies that had the rights and resources to stamp out rebellion.  Such monarchies could spawn new conflicts, but absolutis, called out to kings who took their responsibilities seriously.  In England, the Stuart kings who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, were convinced absolutists.  The English Parliament sought to check the claims to royal rights.  Under the second Stuart king, Charles I, push came to shove.  A civil war broke out (1644-1648).

C.V. Wedgewood chronicled the long struggle in two excellent books (The King’s War, The King’s Peace).  Here she portrayed King Charles as deceitful, even dishonest in his relationships with others (both friends and enemies).  She portrayed him as uncertain, even fearful, in pursuing the course he set out.  He comes off as a poor sort of king to lead a troubled country or to win the war that would decide that country’s future course.

His opponents were very different.  In the course of the war, power passed to a group called the Independents.  These were dissenters from the Church of England (the Protestant state church).  They rejected both the hierarchical administrative structure of the Church and many of its doctrines, which seemed to them too close to Catholicism.  In the words of Thomas Macaulay, “they knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.”  Oliver Cromwell, who rose up to be a formidable soldier and politician, came to be their “chief of men.”

Perhaps 300,000 people died in the civil war before Parliament won.  The Parliament captured the king, found him still determined to assert his claims, and had to decide what to do.  A compromise—the Treaty of Newport—had been offered to the defeated king.  He rejected the terms, which would have included the exiling of his chief supporters, a radical reform of the Church of England, and parliamentary control of the army.

The dominant faction in the Parliament, with their power rooted in the army rather than in the voters, decided to put King Charles I—“that man of blood”–on trial, to convict him, and to execute him.  This amounted to a judicial murder.  It could be justified only by a “cruel necessity” of bringing peace to the country without submitting to royal absolutism.[1]

In her third book on the subject, she focuses on the defeated king in the last, brief, stage of his life.  She portrays Charles as an in many ways admirable human being.  He remained committed to a conservative version of the Church of England and to his own understanding of the royal powers.  In his trial he refused to recognize the right of Parliament to put him on trial.  Convicted and condemned, he met death with great courage.  In sum, a better man than a king.

The trial and execution of King Charles I had ambiguous effects.  Over the short run, it consolidated the victory of Cromwell, the army, and the Independents, while laying royal absolutism in the dust.  Cromwell established what amounted to a military dictatorship.  It alienated many Englishmen, just as had royal absolutism, and scarcely survived Cromwell’s death (1658).  In 1660, the Stuart dynasty was restored to the throne and England has remained a monarchy to this day.  However, Parliament confirmed its authority and it grew with the passage of time.

[1] C.V. Wedgewood, A Coffin for King Charles (New York: Macmillan, 1964).