Frontier fighters and American exceptionalism

OK. Another rant. Sort of. I don’t plan on writing posts based entirely on anger or indignation, not always at least, but as I’m on a roll I think I’ll go with it.

And, like the previous rant – the one on warfare and the French – this comes from an interesting (read unfortunate / awkward) conversation I had while I was promoting Whites of Their Eyes. In this case it was a radio interview. I think I did about twenty or so radio interviews in my “radio tour” to promote Whites of Their Eyes, most of them for early morning AM talk radio or NPR affiliates. They’re usually brisk and stimulating, and though sometimes my five-year-old son interrupts (his bedroom is opposite our home office; it’s all too easy for him to venture out of his bedroom, in pajamas or just wearing his socks, and announce loudly – loud enough to be heard by the interviewer on the other end of the line – that he can’t find his underwear or that the cat is stealing his Star Wars toys) they usually go very well. Often they’re fun. Sometimes there are call-ins, which adds an entirely different dimension to the interview.

One morning, I was scheduled to “appear” on a book-talk show for a Midwest NPR affiliate. Great show, great host, great questions from most of the callers. Several of them were intrigued by a point I had made in the book and in the interview: that the American militiamen who laid siege to Boston in 1775 were not frontiersmen, not dead-eyed marksmen who had learned from Native Americans how to fight in the wilderness. The conventional wisdom was – is, actually – that American soldiers were toughened Indian-fighters, crack shots, while the British were stubbornly unwilling to learn how to fight in the American wilderness. In fact, as one historian after another proclaims, British officers actively discouraged their men from actually taking careful aim while firing because it kept the rate of fire unacceptably low. The latter argument falls perfectly in line with the common American historical stereotype of the foppish, impractical, aristocratic Briton – what a colleague of mine calls “the legend of the silly Brit” – while reinforcing the age-old notion that Americans are inherently more practical, more resourceful, and less hide-bound by tradition than their European cousins.

Instead, though some of the American soldiers present at Lexington and Concord, or at Bunker Hill for that matter, had undoubtedly fought in the French and Indian War two decades before, most had not. There’s evidence that some militia companies indulged in occasional target practice in the spring and summer of 1775, and even learned the rudiments of drill, but this hardly makes them marksmen. And, conversely, the British commander in Boston – General Thomas Gage – made sure that the men in his command regularly practiced “shooting at marks.” Target practice, in other words. In short: in 1775, at least, professional British soldiers were probably handier with a musket than American colonists were.

I’m certainly not the first historian to make that point. But one caller that morning not only took exception to the argument; he was positively infuriated by it.

“How can you sit there and say [actually, I was standing at the time, but it’s a minor point and probably not discernable via radio] that American soldiers in the Revolution weren’t familiar with firearms?” Already his voice started to crack; there was no doubting that this man was angry.

“I didn’t say they weren’t familiar with them,” I replied. “I said that they were less familiar with them than we like to believe. The British trained daily not only in the manual of arms and in the ‘higher schools’ of drill, but also very frequently in marksmanship. Americans didn’t. It’s pretty simple.” I know it sounds like I was being smug, but honestly I wasn’t. I knew this guy was hostile and it made me uncomfortable. I did my level best to keep things cordial.

He practically spat out his next words. “That’s wrong. Just plain wrong. The colonists used firearms every day – to protect themselves and their homes, to hunt. They would have starved if they didn’t know how to use firearms. They depended on hunting for survival.” There was a distinct “Well, if you’re so smart, how do you explain this?” tone to his reply.

“You have to remember,” I tried to be as soothing as possible, “that eastern Massachusetts – that most of New England – was no longer on the frontier. It had been a few generations since people along the coast had had to worry about raids by Native Americans or by the French. And as for hunting: these men were farmers. Hunting was not unknown, but no one in eastern New England depended upon it for their survival.”

The caller tried to interrupt, sputtering, but I kept at it. “Besides, there’s so much evidence to the contrary. The frequency of injury and death from accidental shootings in camp, for instance.”

At that point, mercifully, my interviewer cut the caller off. I’m pretty sure he tried to call back and continue, but the interviewer didn’t take the call. I’m thankful she did. It had been a truly unpleasant exchange.

I found, with writing The Whites of Their Eyes, just how tightly Americans like to cling to their historical mythology. It made a big impression on me. In part, that’s because people tend to be conservative when it comes to the stories they’ve come to accept as part of their national heritage. They don’t like to find out that they might have been wrong. But that clinginess seems to be the worst when it undermines cherished ideas about American exceptionalism – the notion that there is something special, or everything special, about America from the very moment of its violent birth…in this case, that Americans were natural-born warriors, distinct from and superior to the professional soldiers – the mercenaries – of European armies, the slaves of despotic regimes…or so we like to view them. There’s no doubting that Americans have many good reasons to be proud of their history. But allowing an unquestioning belief in the uniqueness of Americans in everything – or the unique superiority of Americans in everything…that’s tantamount to throwing away any pretense at objectivity in looking at our past. That’s not history; that’s heritage, the conscious and self-serving use of the past to make us feel better about ourselves, or to justify feelings of superiority. Unfortunately, it’s all too common in the way we view our history. It’s been all too common in the political rhetoric of the past few months as the established political parties have geared up for the presidential election campaign of 2012. But it’s useless as history and dangerous as a political instrument.

I’ll leave that be for now…but I’m coming back to it. There’s just too much to say about history and American exceptionalism to reduce to a single post.

Victory? What the hell is that? We don’t even have a word for it!

I had planned on saving this for later, but it’s been much on my mind in the past few days and I’m afraid that I have to vent now.

Earlier in December, I was in New York for a signing. Lectures can be fun (I teach, so speaking engagements aren’t exactly a huge change-of-pace); signings are always fun. Or nearly always. This one was particularly, well, cozy. Good-sized crowd but still intimate, Revolutionary War enthusiasts all, very friendly. There was a wine-and-cheese reception before the lecture. I ventured into it, looking forward to chatting with new acquaintances. Just before it was time for me to give a formal talk about Whites of Their Eyes, an older gentleman (meaning older than myself; I’m forty-eight, but my five-year-old son tells me at least once a week that I’m too old and I need to stop having birthdays) approached me, shook my hand and introduced himself. He made some genuinely flattering compliments about Whites of Their Eyes, and then he started to ask me about my previous book, Drillmaster of Valley Forge. That led to a breezy and stimulating discussion about the role played by foreign officers in the Continental Army. My new friend recalled the Marquis de Lafayette. Then he asked if any other French officers served. There were a good number of French officers, I answered, and mostly highly professional ones who served loyally and competently.

I should have seen what was coming next.

“Really?” My companion’s eyebrows shot up high in utter disbelief. “That’s surprising!” He mused for a moment, rolled his eyes, and then chuckled. “For a country, you know, that didn’t win any battles, to have competent officers.”

This was not the first time I had had this conversation. Actually, I’ve been dragged into what I’ve begun to refer to as the “We-saved-France’s-ass-in-two-world-wars-because-they-don’t-know-how-to-fight” dialogue many times before. Mostly with undergrads who knew just enough history to be dangerous. And by “dangerous” I mean “annoying.” I didn’t want to ascend my soapbox or pulpit or whatever the hell it is I ascend when a great historical injustice needs fixin’. But I couldn’t let it get away entirely, either. So I just smiled and replied, casual and friendly: “That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding. France has been a major military power – and a very successful one – for most of its modern history. But when Americans think of France, they think of 1940 and nothing else. The French capitulated in one war – and not without good reason, either – and now that’s all we see. It’s more than a bit unfair.”

I must have ruffled my companion’s feathers a bit. He clearly didn’t like my answer. “It’s not just 1940, it’s 1914, too! We saved them in the first war also!” An easy point to refute; after all, in the “we-saved-France’s-ass” dialogue, this was what usually came next. I pointed out to him that the French held out against the German army in its prime on the Western Front, absorbing almost unimaginable casualties in the process, and that American troops only made a significant contribution to the war in the West in the last few months of the conflict. In other words, the French didn’t capitulate in 1917, and if the USA came to the rescue in 1918 it was only because France had held out for so long without American help.

I might as well have been singing La Marseillaise while waving the tricolor over my head. For all my well-rehearsed erudition (or so I told myself it was), I did nothing more than convince the other gentleman that I was some kind of Francophile. I tried to convince him, tried to make references to Napoléon Bonaparte, to the French Revolutionary armies, to the great Turenne and Condé and Montcalm. All to no effect. With a mumbled “I’ll have to check into that sometime,” my erstwhile companion abruptly broke off the conversation and disappeared into the small crowd of attendees now hovering around the platters of cheese and crackers.

I felt a little disappointed. I don’t like alienating people, and I’m always surprised at how often people – not even professional historians with advanced degrees and a surfeit of pride – take it personally when you rain on their parades. Usually, in conversation with a new acquaintance, I try to veer off-topic if a clash seems imminent. But I just can’t make myself do it when the “France as the perpetual loser” theme comes up.

Because – unlike a lot of what I like to see as wrongheaded interpretations of history – this isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s demonstrably, absolutely, irrefutably false. France prevailed in the last decades of the Hundred Years’ conflicts with England (and those were the decades that counted). French armies more than held their own in the Habsburg-Valois wars fought over northern Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century.

It was in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the greatest international contest of the early modern era, that France emerged to take Spain’s place as Europe’s superpower. France bankrolled the victorious Swedish war effort, and fielded redoubtable armies of her own…including the army that, under the great Condé, defeated the Spanish at Rocroi in 1643, arguably one of the most important battles of that conflict. The armies of Louis XIV kept the other European powers occupied from the mid-1660s to 1713, even when faced with overwhelming odds – and with great opponents like the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène.

Napoléon Bonaparte should scarcely require mention; his career alone is enough to show how dead wrong the image of “France as the perpetual loser” really is. Even when poorly led, as in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, French troops accomplished incredible things (we’ll get back to that later); even when going through bad luck (as in much of the eighteenth century), it was France – not Britain, not Prussia – that all European soldiers looked to for guidance in military theory and innovative ideas.

There’s a reason that the U.S. army – before, during, and after the Civil War – tried to emulate everything the French army did, and it wasn’t just those adorable Zouave uniforms. There’s a reason that Friedrich Engels (yes, he of “Marx and…” fame), an informed and keen observer of European armies in his day, considered the French army to be the finest in the world in 1860. In fact, it was that quality that made France’s defeats in 1870-71 and 1940 so shocking to contemporaries …because contemporaries, even Americans, knew something that Americans today seem to have forgotten: that France was a great military power. Its defeat by upstarts – Prussia in 1871, Nazi Germany in 1940 – seemed all but impossible.

Over the years, Americans have found one thing after another to dislike about France and the French. Lots of things to admire and emulate, too. We often berate ourselves for our collective ignorance of our past; fabricating a make-believe past for another nation, and then crowing about our self-proclaimed superiority to that nation…well, I’m fairly certain that that’s worse than mere ignorance.

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