I’ve been a history professor at Wright State University (Dayton, Ohio) for twenty-nine years now, ever since I earned my Ph.D. in European and military history at Purdue University. I started my undergrad education (at SUNY/Potsdam) bound and determined to be a scholar of the American Civil War. But I became interested in American military history in a broader sense, then in the European context of that military history, then in eighteenth-century European military history…and by the time I went to Purdue I was fairly convinced that my professional future was in eighteenth-century Prussia. Yes, I know, that sounds impossible, but if you study history for a living you know what I mean. At Purdue I had the great good fortune to study under the late, great, and thoroughly demanding Gunther E. Rothenberg, one of the premier Napoleonic scholars of the past century, and with Charles Ingrao, an equally distinguished scholar of early modern German and Austrian history.
At Wright State I teach all kinds of history, mostly (and predictably) Western Civ courses (that all undergrads there have to take), plus courses in American military history, European military history, religion and politics in European history, Scandinavian history…you get the picture. It’s a real grab-bag, and one of the things I’ve loved about teaching at Wright State is the freedom to teach – practically – whatever I want to teach. For two years now – by way of an example – I’ve been teaching a course on “Military Technology and the Art of War, 1750-1914,” which is in essence a course on the history of firearms. One of the little rabbit-holes I’ve gone down over the years.
My books are a bit varied, too. [To see or order any of my books click here.] My first four books are about the subject I fell in love with while I was in grad school: the history of Scandinavia from the time of the Protestant Reformation until the middle of the 1600s. Mostly Denmark. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound all that fascinating. I can assure you that it is – there’s a reason I picked that field, you know, and it has nothing to do with ancestry. Scandinavian history is dark and bloody and exotic and grimly funny, all at once. But a few years ago, I decided to wanted to write for a much larger audience, and not just for fellow academics. Academic writing is just too inhibiting for my tastes, and I found that what I really liked about history as a discipline was the storytelling. As a kid, my favorite authors (besides an odd grouping of literary greats like Melville, Crane, and Faulkner) were Bruce Catton, Kenneth Roberts, and McKinley Kantor. Yes, two of those three are/were novelists. But that’s who I wanted to be when I was twelve. Good Lord, I was a geek. Anyway, maybe you can get a sense of what I mean if you read the last chapter of Glory Road, the second volume of Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. The chapter is called “Valley of Dry Bones,” and to my mind it’s still the single best piece of historical writing in the English language, period. I’ve read a lot of popular narrative history over the past four decades and I’ve never seen anything, even in Catton’s remarkable oeuvre, that rivals it.
So inspired by the late Mr. Catton, and understanding – grudgingly, mind you – that Americans just weren’t ready for the history of sixteenth-century Denmark, I turned back to my first love: American history before the Civil War, and especially the Revolution. Hence Drillmaster. I grew up in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York, just a tad south of Poughkeepsie, and my favorite memories of autumn along the Hudson involve trips to see New Windsor Cantonment and Stony Point and Washington’s headquarters in Newburgh; Steuben’s headquarters from one of the 1780s’ encampments of the Continental Army isn’t all that far from where my dad worked near Fishkill. As to Whites of Their Eyes: I can practically smell and taste the moment when I first saw the Howard Pyle painting of Redcoats advancing towards the Breed’s Hill redoubt on that blistering June day. I couldn’t have been much more than seven or eight years old and still that painting just drew me in. So going back to the Revolution was easy, natural, comfortable…and warmly familiar. Next stop: the First World War.
So here, on my blog, I get the chance to ruminate on things that may relate directly to my books but more likely will be tangential. Things that strike my fancy (as a historian) from the news, from book tours. And maybe a few observations on historical research drawn from my experiences as a researcher, author, and prof.
I know it seems tacked on, but I do want to mention that I live near Dayton, Ohio, with my brilliant, beautiful wife, Mary, our twelve-year-old son, Alex, and a dog and two cats. [One of the cats is named Spit. This is what happens when you let a five-year-old boy name a cat.]
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