Archive for March, 2012

Masterpiece Theatre

Fred Anderson. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

The Seven Years’ War (also known in American grammar school textbooks as the French and Indian War) has often been cast aside as a colonial war, an aberration that was mostly a prelude to the American Revolution. Seen from the perspective of Massachusetts soldiers, however, the war was a singular events in their lives. In his groundbreaking book A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, Fred Anderson blends military and social history to examine the lives of provincial soldiers from Massachusetts to find deeper meaning in the Seven Years’ War than typically ascribed to it in textbooks. Anderson argues that “the Seven Years’ War was anything but a deviation from business as usual. It was instead a world-shaping event, an occurrence with the power to unify the experiences of those across whose lives it cut. The Seven Years’ War, like World War I, was capable of creating a generation of men with a ‘common frame of reference’ that set them apart from those who had preceded them in time and which would ‘later distinguish the members of the generation from those who follow[ed] them.'” Yes, you read that correctly. Anderson compares the impact of the French and Indian War to that of the First World War. Anderson examines soldierly life for provincial troops, their social backgrounds, the lives they left behind to fight in the war, the leadership and organization of provincial armies, the effect of combat, and, perhaps most importantly, their interactions with the British Army. The experiences of provincial soldiers and their interactions with the Redcoats would ultimately lead them to think of themselves as a people distinct from the British, and this, in turn, provided fertile ground for Massachusetts’ support of the Revolution of 1776. Are you keeping up? Anderson uses to a blend of social and military history to make an argument that is germane to political historians of the American Revolution. If your head isn’t spinning by now, it should be. A People’s Army represents the ultimate tour de force for a historian – breathtakingly original, from a methodological and argumentative standpoint.

First, methodology. As I mentioned, A People’s Army is a blend of social and military history. While Anderson published the book in the 1984, it was based on his Ph. D. dissertation from Harvard, which he finished in 1981. It’s a good bet that it took, at the very least, three or four years of research and writing to complete his dissertation (and perhaps a good deal more). So, Anderson began his advanced training as a historian in the mid-to-late 1970s and when it comes to assessing this book, it’s useful ask what social history looked like in the late ’70s and also to look at what was going on in the world of military history around the same time.

Anderson writes that his book “differs from much recent social history…in that it concerns not the long durée, but the impact of an event, the Seven Years’ War, in the lives of the people it affected most directly.” The term long durée comes from the French Annales scholars, who were among the most influential historians of the 20th century. In the interest of brevity, I am not going to go into the history of Annales School, but if you want to learn more about what the Annales stood for (they were a diverse lot, to say the least), I can recommend you read Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by Georg G. Iggers, in particular, pages 51 to 64. Anyway, for purposes here, we can say that the long durée was a discreet kind of time that “moved in slow cycles of hundreds of years or more.” Social historians hoped to understand society from ‘the bottom-up’ and used huge banks of statistical data, often with the help of computers, in order to tease out small, barely perceptible changes over the course of centuries. So, instead of writing about people and their lives in an almost geological sense, Anderson employed the same quantitative methodologies to learn about the importance of a discreet historical event (the Seven Years’ War) on very specific historical actors (provincial soldiers from Massachusetts). From the perspective of social history in the late ’70s early ’80s, A People’s Army was pathbreaking.

While social history in the 20th century proved to a dynamic category of historical analysis, military history was a first-rate specimen of methodological continuity. Anderson summarizes in one sentence the primary focus of military historians: “the narration of campaigns and the analysis of generalship.” Anderson levels strong criticism at such history. He writes, “Wars are waged to be won, and too many writers of military history have taken it as their main task to isolate the elements that have made for success or failure, trying (for example) to explain how General A could fight a battle brilliantly against great odds while General B could manage to dissipate his advantages and butcher his own men.” This incorrect focus of military historians led them to “judge past armies and soldiers by professional standards of discipline, efficiency, and cohesion.”  Instead, Anderson took a far different approach and instead “focused on the mundane aspects of soldiering – daily life, discipline, common attitudes toward war, and so on – in order to gauge the effects of military service on the provincial troops themselves.” So, from the perspective of military history in the late ’70s and early ’80s, A People’s Army was, again, pathbreaking.

And then there’s Anderson’s thesis, which is of interest to historians of the politics of the American Revolution. Anderson makes it very clear that the British Army and the provincial armies (who fought in the same campaigns on the same side of the war) were quite dissimilar in their backgrounds, economies, motivations for fighting, discipline, organization, leadership, and worldview. Relations with the Redcoats were often strained because of these differences. For example, a British soldier saw himself upholding the sovereignty of the king, and they served at his majesty’s leisure. Provincial soldiers saw themselves as fulfilling a contract (or covenant) they had made their local government that was to last for one campaign. Both sides had to fulfill the contract or it became null and void. British soldiers came from a world of intricate social stratification and the army’s organization bore out such social distinctions. Provincial soldiers came from a much more level society that knew a far less elaborate social hierarchy. Ultimately, these differences would inculcate to Massachusetts soldiers and officers the differences they had with the British. Because the war was a singular event in the soldiers’ lives – a major plot point, if you will – it created a common frame of reference for the men and, in turn, they learned a common lesson. Anderson explains that “[a]s spokesmen for political (and later military) resistance began to make themselves heard in Boston, the veterans in the countryside could scarcely ignore the similarities between what they were hearing and what they themselves had witnessed during the last war. Public criticism of the British, couched in the terms of republican rhetoric, found a ready confirmation in the veterans’ personal experience.” And so, Anderson finds that seeds of revolution in the Seven Years’ War of a very different variety than usually cited by scholars. And so, from the perspective of political historiography of the American Revolution in the late ’70s and early ’80s, A People’s Army was, yet again, pathbreaking.

So, I’ve (hopefully) made it clear that Anderson’s work is pathbreaking in regards to social, military, and political history. And this gets at what I think was Anderson’s even bigger message: Historians have too many categories. I said above that this book is a blend of social and military history, but I think it might be safer to say that it draws from those genres, but A People’s Army really transcends those categories. It’s really about the lives of soldiers. While I have no idea if this was Anderson’s intention, the moral of the story could not be clearer to me. First of all, these categories (military history, political history, social history, economic history, etc.) have very little to do with the lived reality of the past. These categories have become somewhat rigid over the years, and often define the nature of one’s primary and secondary research. The great southern historian Glenda E. Gilmore nailed it when she wrote that not only are these categories “drawn by and for historians,” but also that “subfields misrepresent the way people actually lived their lives.” Anderson described the lived reality of the Seven Years’ War for Massachusetts soldiers – a reality that defies historians’ categorizations. A People’s Army is as much as statement against historical categories that are very often so arbitrary and restrictive that they are ahistorical. And the message of understanding history and historical actors on their own terms, instead of our terms, is always a message worth sharing.

Read Full Post »