Embedded with the reenactors – American History – Salon.com

Embedded with the reenactors – American History – Salon.com.

I’ve been involved with reenacting for most of my adult life, sporadically but intensely. And to be perfectly honest, as a historian I have truly mixed feelings about that. In part, it’s the whole “honoring one’s ancestors” aspect of reenacting / living history, which I’ve never fully understood; in part it’s the notion that someone who has never done primary-source research, has perhaps watched a documentary or two, and partially absorbed a secondary source (usually dubious) can tell a wide-eyed public that he/she is a “historian.” But more about that later. I want to ruminate on this for a couple of days and write something up. And if anyone is reading this, I’d like to read their opinions about the merits/flaws they see in historical reenacting … let me hear from you.

Hey, fellas, the “garage”? Well, la di da, Mr. French Man!

Another not so substantive post…perhaps two quasi-posts equal one decent one? Probably not. But I wanted to share the following anyway, not because of its political content. I’m going to do my level best to steer clear of modern American politics where I can. But this bothers me, on many levels, and it ties in to an earlier post ( “Victory? What the hell is that? We don’t even have a word for it!” ). And yes, I do know it’s not all that current. Over a week old, in fact. It’s still awful. Newt Gingrich revealing that … oh Lord … Mitt Romney has a vague familiarity with spoken French! Perhaps the flipside of the time-honored and completely wrongheaded “France-as-perpetual-loser” in warfare — France as the most effete of all European states (and they’re all pretty effete, by this line of reasoning), and any familiarity with French culture is, for an American (and American males in particular), a sign of weakness and elitism. Probably a sign of being just a tad un-American, too. Nothing’s more un-American than someone puttin’ on airs and thinkin’ he’s better’n us. And nothing says that like Mitt Romney clumsily / dutifully reciting “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney.” [Of course Gingrich was offended; Romney sounded like a native, didn’t he? I almost expected him to continue in singsong: “Où est la gare? La gare est en face de la pharmacie!”] Ah, partial mastery of first-year high-school French — truly the most damning affectation a candidate for president could sport.

It’s funny, given how once Americans admired everything French — and uncritically so, too — that our francophobia is now so deep-rooted that some of us automatically distrust anyone who shows anything resembling familiarity with French culture. It’s hardly a new thing — witness Frederick the Great’s affinity for French music, language, and literature, and how his father, King Frederick William I of Prussia, regarded that taste. [In a nutshell, not well at all.] Oh well. C’est la vie.

Oops.

What’s THAT?

Nothing terribly substantive this time, alas. It’s just that I’ve been getting a few questions about the source of the banner photo at the top of this page. It’s not too bad a photo, considering that I took it; I’m very much of the opinion that anyone can get a really great shot (not that this is one of them) every now and again — all you have to do is take thousands of photos and a few of them are bound to turn out decently.

Anyway, this is a photo of Kalø Castle, on the Jutish mainland in Denmark. Or rather the ruins of Kalø. I was last there in April 2000, when I took this photo. It’s a very lonely, windswept place, perched on a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow stone-paved causeway. [For a brief history in English of the castle, with links to a couple of Danish sites, click here.] Not much of it is left since it was largely demolished late in the seventeenth century, but the ruins are gorgeous — lonely and desolate but gorgeous. I picked it for my banner because

I miss Denmark. I really miss Denmark.

It’s purty.

I’m planning on writing a novel — yes, a novel — which will be set at Kalø among other places. I’m not giving up non-fiction, and in fact I already have another book in the works; more on that later. But years ago I ran across one of the truly great stories from Danish history, a story that’s full of anger and blood and revenge and, yes, sex. Not a happy story, mind you, and it’s actually quite grim. Unfortunately, interest in Danish history being not especially acute in the US, I’m going to follow some advice David McCullough once gave me and make it fiction. It’ll be more fun that way, anyhow.

In the meantime, here’s another purty picture of Kalø:

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.

The Past in the Present

Welcome to my blog!

My name is Paul Lockhart, and history is my life. Not merely in the sense that I feel passionately about the subject, but in that it’s how I make my living. I’ve been a history prof for the better part of a quarter-century, and I write books about history. There are lots of history-related blogs out there, and lots of author blogs too. Mine, hopefully, will prove to be a little different than most. Part of my purpose in keeping a blog is to keep in touch with the people who read and like my books, to get a chance to shoot the breeze with them (or something very much like that), to chat over the subjects of the books, the subjects that interest me, and the subjects that interest my readers, too. It also gives me the opportunity to share something of what I’ve learned from teaching (or at least trying to!) history to a couple of different generations of college students: reflections on how we practice history, how we shouldn’t practice history, and how history speaks to us today.

I’ll be posting roughly once a week. I intend to keep that level up, and occasionally I may even exceed it. Please drop by from time to time. Maybe you’ll find something you like, or something thought-provoking at least.

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