Monday, October 8, 2018

The Unfortunate Apartheid Between Military History And Academic History

I really fell in love with Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of the United States starting with the Abraham Lincoln quote at the beginning - "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Guns And Drums And Drums And Guns - Hurroo

My childhood version of American history was one in which people, overwhelmingly white and male people went from one positive achievement to the next.  Then there come counter narratives in which all the good guys become bad guys.  I call it the Dances With Wolves syndrome.  Most people, probably because they have more sense than I do, don't spend so much time engaged with history.  They will be content with the single narrative that they learn, which will vary depending on their age, or will embrace a counter narrative learning that what they originally learned is what "they want you to think" and here is the real story.

There are other people that engage with history much more passionately than I do, but by focusing very narrowly can have their overall narrative go undisturbed.  You see that a lot if you hang around Civil War sites.  If you study for and pass the exam to become a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg, you will know a tremendous amount of very detailed history.  According to one guide, I spoke to though you are not required to know about anything that did not happen between 1861 and 1865 ( That was an exaggeration.  As you can see from the sample questions you need to know about how the park was developed and preserved)

Just as a test of that, I stumped a guide by talking about Margaret Fuller.  He didn't know who she was. There are even aspects of the military history that hard core Civil War guys are weak on, such as the service of black troops in the Union Army.

At any rate what Jill Lepore is promising is a more nuanced if not so detailed overview of American history where she notes that the Columbian Almanack that could be sold with a copy of the Constitution as an appendix included  an advertisement of the sale of a "likely young negro wench".

The Error

So I am a little upset that I am getting hung up on a mistake that she made fairly early in the book.  It is a matter that is tangential to her sweeping narrative, so I could just let it go, I suppose.  And it is an odd coincidence that made me notice it, despite it being obvious to someone familiar with the topic addressed, but I think it is important because it is indicative of an apartheid between academic historians and the general run of people who find history of interest and are inspired by it.  Jill Lepore is the  David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University.  An endowed chair at Harvard.  That's about as good as it gets.

Anyway, here is the offending passage, which will be followed by a meandering explanation as to why I caught it so easily.

In 1781, in hopes of taking the Chesapeake, the British general Lord Cornwallis fortified Yorktown, Virginia, as a naval base. His troops were soon besieged and bombarded by a combination of French and American forces. The French were led by the dazzling Marquis de Lafayette, whose service to the Continental army and impassioned advocacy of the American cause had included lobbying for French support. Cornwallis was vulnerable because British naval forces were occupied in the Caribbean. He surrendered on October 19, not realizing that British forces were that very day sailing from New York to aid him. Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown ended the fighting in North America, but it didn’t end the war. The real end, for Great Britain, came in 1782, in the West Indies, at the Battle of the Saintes, when the British defeated a French and Spanish invasion of Jamaica, an outcome that testified not to the empire’s weaknesses but to its priorities. Britain kept the Caribbean but gave up America. (Emphasis added)
My Lafayette Obsession

For the last year or so I have been obsessing about commemorating the bicentennial of Lafayette's Farewell Tour 1824-25.  In order to make it happen, I am thinking that we need to have various venues do commemorations in the years leading up to the bicentennial. I spent the last year working on two events. There was a pretty authentic representation of Lafayette's reception in a small New England Town, that was held at Old Sturbridge Village on September 2.  My role there was mainly instigator.

Julien Icher working for the French consulate in Boston in front of Rider Tavern where Lafayette stopped in 1824
On the previous day there had been an event more designed to capture the spirit of Lafayette's reception at the still extant Rider Tavern in Charlton, MA.  At that event anachronism was not tolerated, it was actively embraced, including Lafyette thanking World War II veterans, some of whom had served in France.  In the spirit of 1824 Lafayette was greeted by a variety of groups including the Daughters of the American Revolution and Masonic Colonial Craftsmen.

I had done much of the recruiting for that event.  As part of that project I spent August 4 at Old Sturbridge Village during their Redcoats and Rebels weekend trying to recruit a few more reenactors.  I had some success with people who reenact some of the French regiments that fought in the American Revolution.  About eight of them showed up in Charlton pretty spontaneously and ended up standing guard.  The white uniforms were a really nice touch.  I wonder how they keep them so clean.

One of the fellows who came portrays a French officer and he had just a bit of arrogance about him.  He made it a point that his guys would not have been serving under Lafayette.  Americans are utterly unreserved in their love of Lafayette, the French not so much.  Lafayette had run off to America and been made a major general in the Continental Army when he was about nineteen.  It was thought to be a more honorary thing, but then he did well at the Battle of Brandywine.

Then he went back to France to "lobby for support" as Professor Lepore puts it.  And France certainly came back with a lot of support. There was still resentment of Lafayette for having disobeyed orders to fly off to America.  And a major world power giving command of its expeditionary force to a twenty-something kid because the rag-tag rebels think highly of him?

Imagine some crazy kid drops out of West Point and goes to the Eastern Ukraine to help the anti-Russian forces there and, God forbid, we actually end up at war with the Russians and the Ukrainians just love that kid to death.  That would make for an interesting story and all, but one thing that is not going to happen is the US Army giving the twenty-something West Point drop-out four stars so he can command the NATO forces engaged there.  Things were different in the 18th Century. but probably not that different.

So as I was engaging with the "French officer" he pointed out that the French forces at Yorktown were commanded by Rochambeau.  Lafayette, of course, was there.  And he commanded a division - an American division.  So not only did Lafayette not have overall command of the "French", he did not command any French at all (except maybe some random guys sprinkled in the American troops (and 300 Canadians) that he did command.

How Did That Get By?

What intrigues me about this error is not that Professor Lepore made it.  It's an easy one to make if your knowledge of Lafayette and strictly military history is on the light side.  What is amazing is that it went undetected to publication.  Why wasn't anybody with some level of expertise in the military history of the Revolution invited to take a look at the book?  I'm pretty sure any of them would have caught that instantly.

Again going back to my kidhood version of history, it was mostly about war and and a bit about politics. As I majored in history and then went to graduate school, I gained a more sophisticated view, but there was this odd thing  I noticed.   In graduate school I was working on a project that might not have been ill-conceived but was definitely poorly executed.  It was inspired by The Discovery of the Asylum by David J. Rothman.  And the notion was to do a multiple career line biography of the members Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane.  The organization is still extant, although it is now known as the American Psychiatric Association.

One of the things that struck me as I was studying this crew was the way that the Civil War cut across their lives turning some of them from country doctors to running large establishments.  One of them seeing bad tactical decisions decided he could save more lives by becoming a line officer.

At any rate, my point is that military history is very important and should not be just left to military historians and hobbyists.  And if you are going to let some military history seep into your grand narrative, you should probably avoid making obvious errors. because it will reinforce the people who think only pure military history is worthwhile.

Peter J. Reilly CPA majored in history at the College of the Holy Cross and after a year in VISTA took a stab at being a historian.  It did not end well, but public accounting has been good to him.

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