Brexit and the Search for British Identity

by Allison Abra


A house in London shows support for the Leave campaign.

Last May, I wrapped up a course on the history of Britain in the 20th century with a class discussion on “Britain today.” Having covered the history of the European Union – and Britain’s often fraught relationship with it – earlier in the semester, I described the then pending “Brexit” vote that was set for June 23rd. In a referendum, citizens of the United Kingdom would decide whether to leave or remain in the EU. I closed the class by telling my students to “stay tuned” during their summer break to see how the vote panned out.

At the time, I was primarily thinking about ways to keep my students engaged in the history of Britain after our class had ended, and to encourage them to continue applying the historical knowledge they had accrued to current events. I didn’t think there was much of a chance that proponents of Brexit would succeed, and that the British would actually vote to leave the EU. Like many, I woke up on the morning of June 24th and was stunned to discover that the Leave campaign had carried the vote by a margin of 52% to 48%.

In the months since, the Leave victory has inspired a wide variety of responses – not the least of which seems to be a general confusion over how Brexit will proceed, or if it will proceed at all. Most recently, Prime Minister Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron after he resigned during the fall-out from the referendum, has repeatedly asserted that “Brexit means Brexit” and that her government will trigger the formal process of leaving the EU by March 2017. The future of Britain’s relationships with Europe and the rest of the world hangs in the balance, and the fate of the UK itself is in question given the ammunition that the Leave result has provided the Scottish nationalist cause. While signs point towards some form of Brexit taking place, I don’t think anyone – myself included – has a clear sense of precisely what will happen next. However, what I have been reflecting on in the wake of the referendum is how these events are just the latest chapter in a much longer story in which Britain has sought to define its national identity and place in the world in the decades since the Second World War ended in 1945.


Propaganda poster from World War II.

How the British nation has been imagined at different points in its history is a fundamental question of historical scholarship in my field. Historians have argued that British national identity was constructed against a French Catholic “other” in the eighteenth century; in relation to an ever-expanding colonial empire in the nineteenth century; and by ideals of duty, service, and national unity during the two world wars.[1]

Yet the British people emerged from the Second World War without a clear sense of who they would be as a nation from that point on. The country was victorious in war, but economically and physically devastated from years of bombing, rationing, and war-making. The gradual loss of the Empire as the era of decolonization began in earnest, and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the world’s new superpowers took away the global predominance that had defined the country for centuries. So what did it now mean to be British? As my class and I explored last spring, in various ways Britain has spent the ensuing seventy years trying to figure that out.

On the domestic front, the establishment of the Welfare State in the late 1940s – the “people’s peace” that resulted from a “people’s war” – offered one vision of the nation defined in terms of collective welfare and social citizenship. In the early 1950s, special events like the Festival of Britain and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II each circulated competing ideas about nationhood built on an intersection of modernity and tradition. The Festival emphasized the belief that Britain was recovering from the war and would have contributions to make in the future, but it also celebrated heritage and history. Two years later, the Queen was crowned in a ceremony that was centuries old, but which was broadcast all over the world via the new medium of television.[2]


A National Front march in Yorkshire in the 1970’s.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a common enemy and with liberation movements flowering worldwide, it became less clear what now united the disparate nations of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – and Celtic nationalism surged. Waves of immigration from the Empire and Commonwealth constructed a possible national identity built on multiculturalism, but also prompted the assertion of a reactionary nationalism that affirmed Britishness as white.[3] This was most visibly expressed in the racist anti-immigrant invective of Enoch Powell and the National Front in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the rise of the British National Party. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which played a central role in the Leave campaign, is Britain’s most recent incarnation of far-right political thought.


US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David in 1984.

Like its opposition to immigration, UKIP’s Euroskepticism builds on longstanding tensions over Britain’s place in the world after 1945. Throughout its post-war history Britain has often seemed uncertain about which way to look in evaluating trading partners and military allies. Should it rely on the Empire and Commonwealth, or the United States with which it shares that “special relationship,” or the continent to which it is connected by geography (officially, if not physically, given the presence of the English Channel)? At different moments – within the broader context of decolonization, the Cold War, European integration, Thatcherism, and the post 9/11 world – British foreign policy, economic ties, and cultural exchanges have leaned one way or the other.

With respect to Europe, Britain resisted joining the EU’s precursor, the European Economic Community, when it was founded in 1957. Four years later, a change of heart led to a British application to the EEC that was denied by a French veto. Membership in the EEC finally came in 1973, but ambivalence towards Europe lingered in the policies of Margaret Thatcher, in the John Major government’s decision not to adopt the Euro when the EEC expanded into the European Union, and in the controversies over the number of people from member states, particularly from Eastern Europe, living and working in the UK as the EU expanded.


The famous bus of the Leave campaign which promised the re-direction of funds from the EU to the NHS if Brexit was achieved.

And so we come to Brexit, the latest manifestation of Britain’s efforts to define itself and its relationship to the world. Many of the debates and issues described above reared their heads once again in the lead-up to the referendum: Euroskepticism, certainly, but also xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom, and even the importance of the Welfare State to the nation’s sense of self, as demonstrated by the Leave campaign’s promise to re-direct funds currently going to the EU into the National Health Service. What remains to be seen is whether the aftermath of the Brexit decision will force a resolution to these enduring questions and uncertainties, and if a clear idea of what it means to be British in the 21st century will at last be articulated.

Stay tuned.

Allison Abra is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society, and the Nina Bell Suggs Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. A specialist in modern British history, her book Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 will be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.

[1] See, for example: Linda Colley, Britons: Forging of the Nation, 1707-1837, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Nicoletta Gullace, ‘The Blood of Our Sons:’ Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Becky E. Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation:’ The 1951 Festival of Britain, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003); Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar World, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Gender, Race And National Identity, 1945-1964, (London: Routledge, 2003).

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“A Firm and Perpetual League of Friendship and Amity?”: Reevaluating the United Colonies of New England and the Politics of War, 1636-1690

by Tyler Rotter, Guest Contributor

As a self-proclaimed cultural historian, I began my dissertation research believing

Bloody Brook

Tyler A. Rotter at the site of Bloody Brook massacre near present day Deerfield, Massachusetts. On September 18, 1675, a group of Nipmuc Indians ambushed colonists escorting a wagon train, killing most of the militiamen and teamsters. Photo courtesy of the author.

political history was passé, especially in relation to military history. I could not have been more wrong. When addressing the relationship between religion and military conflict in early New England, the politics of war simply cannot be ignored. Although religious and civil institutions were considered separate pillars of authority in Puritan society, they regularly interacted. Wanting a deeper understanding of Puritan perceptions of war led me to investigate the workings of the United Colonies of New England, an institution with firm foundations in both the religious and civil life of the region. While initially approaching the topic from a cultural viewpoint, it became clear that I needed to reconsider the political life of early New England as well.

Wars, invasion threats, raids, border skirmishes, and expeditionary adventures continually frayed the nerves of Puritans in early New England. Shortly after the Winthrop fleet landed in Massachusetts, defense became a primary concern for the colonists. With the Pequot War (1636-1637) fresh in their memory and the English Civil War just beginning, representatives from the colonies of New England (Massachusetts Bay, New Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven), excluding Rhode Island, allied themselves in order to preserve the “purity” of their religion from outside interference and strengthen themselves against possible threats posed by the French, Dutch, and Native Americans. While seemingly a sound solution in theory, in practice the United Colonies of New England suffered from internal strife and contests of authority that made it ineffective from its inception in 1643.[1]

During the spring of 1637, Massachusetts prepared for war with the Pequots. Concerned about money and manpower, Massachusetts’s legislative body – the General Court – sought aid from Plymouth Colony. Already upset with Massachusetts over trade issues and land rights in Maine and Connecticut, Plymouth was hesitant to join forces with their


From Captain John Underhill, a woodcut print depicting the Battle of Mistick Fort near present day Mystic, Connecticut, May 1637. Hundreds of Native men, women, and children were killed at the hands of the English and their Indian allies. Image courtesy of the author.

sister colony to the North. It did not help matters that Plymouth blamed John Endecott, a prominent Massachusetts official and soldier, for single-handedly provoking the Pequots and starting the war. Addressing Plymouth’s objections, Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane insisted that they simply wanted Plymouth to “join against the common enemy, who . . . would prove as dangerous to them as to us.”[2] Though still uncertain, Plymouth officials agreed to join Massachusetts’s war effort. However, they wanted assurances that aid would be reciprocated in the event of future wars – a sentiment also shared by Connecticut.[3]

Even though Massachusetts insisted on cooperation between the colonies during the Pequot War, this stance was short-lived once the fighting stopped. Having not reaped the desired rewards (land) from the Pequot War, Massachusetts was hesitant to establish a confederation with the other Puritan colonies. Knowing they would contribute more resources and manpower in future conflicts, the Bay Colony wanted guaranteed authority over the other members and insisted on the supremacy of their own General Court over any confederation council, an argument that became a major point of contention once the


A map indicating the location of the New England Colonies in 1650. The location of New Netherland is also included. Image courtesy of the author.

United Colonies was established five years later.

According to the “Articles of Confederation,” the Commissioners had “full power” to assess all matters “of our war or peace.” Only six of the eight commissioners needed to agree in order to settle any business in question.[4] However, Massachusetts, as the largest colony in New England, refused to let their authority be undermined by the combined efforts of the league’s three smaller members.[5] For instance, during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654), New Haven, Connecticut, and Plymouth were concerned about maintaining their trading and territorial interests that were threatened by the Dutch in neighboring New Netherland. Citing a rumor that the Dutch and Narragansetts were negotiating a treaty and discussing whether or not to attack the English, the three smaller colonies called for an immediate offensive expedition. While such an expedition was justifiable according to the United Colonies’ Articles of Confederation, the Massachusetts General Court refused to participate. When the other colonies challenged their refusal as destructive to the league, Massachusetts once again reasserted the “supreme power” of their General Court stating the Commissioners “cannot, nor ever did, challenge authority over us, or expect subjection from us.”[6] This assertion was not unique. Massachusetts Bay often used their self-imposed authority as a means to avoid participation in potential conflicts, or, at the very least, delay participation until royal officials challenged their authority directly.

king philip

A portrait of Metacomet (King Philip) made by Paul Revere for the 1772 edition of Benjamin Church’s An Entertaining History of King Philip’s War.

With the coming of King Philip’s War (1675-1676), Massachusetts shifted its policy back to one of cooperation.[7] A general fear of Indians continued to grow within Massachusetts throughout the seventeenth century and by the 1670s attitudes were at a tipping point. Because of this fear, Massachusetts offered Plymouth support in subduing Metacomet (King Philip) and the Wampanoags after the tribe initiated hostilities in the summer of 1675. However, Massachusetts continued to assert supremacy within the region, demonstrated in part by the United Colonies debate concerning the Narragansetts (a powerful tribe in southern New England that had been neutral in the war) in the fall. Connecticut favored a policy of caution and partial appeasement in order to prevent war with the


Place-marker at the location of the Great Swamp Fight between the English and Narragansett Indians. Image courtesy of the author.

Narragansetts, who were located on their eastern frontier. Conversely, Massachusetts – and subsequently Plymouth who had submitted to the Bay Colony’s increasing authority – tried to persuade the Connecticut commissioners to adopt a more aggressive posture. When Connecticut officials refused to budge, the Commissioners from Massachusetts and Plymouth declared Connecticut’s actions to be “an absolute violation” of the Articles of Confederation.[8] The subsequent


Depiction of the colonial attack on the Narragansetts for in the Great Swamp, near present day South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Image courtesy of the author.

English attack on the Narragansetts in December 1675 forced the powerful tribe into the war.

The United Colonies had been designed to be a unifying force in New England. While the two examples above are only a small sample of the problems faced by the league, they are representative of the many issues addressed by Commissioners during the Confederation’s tenure. When viewed against its stated purpose, the United Colonies were largely ineffectual until the group dissolved in 1690. This does not mean, however, the institution should be ignored. Examining the various debates that occurred between the member colonies, and the many political viewpoints exhibited during those debates, offers a window into how Puritan society viewed and acted in the face of war.

Tyler A. Rotter is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The University of Southern Mississippi and is the department’s 2015-16 W.D. McCain Graduate Dissertation Fellow. His research has been funded in part by the Colonel W. Wayde Benson (USMC Ret.) Fellowship and the Lamar Powell History Graduate Scholarship from the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. He is currently working on his dissertation “The New England Mind at War: Religion, Politics, and the Evolution of Puritan Identity, 1630-1720,” under the supervision of Dr. Kyle F. Zelner.

[1] The last major work to specifically focus on the United Colonies was Harry Ward’s The United Colonies of New England. Ward argued that although differences often arose amongst the confederated colonies, the United Colonies were successful and became the first example of federalism in the New World. See Harry M. Ward, The United Colonies of New England, 1643-1690 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961).

[2] All direct quotes have been changed to reflect modern spellings. John Winthrop, Winthrop’s Journal: “History of New England,” 1630-1649, ed. James Kendall Hosmer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908) 1:213-214; William Bradford, Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation”: From the Original Manuscript (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing, 1898), 419-423.

[3] The most comprehensive history of the Pequot War is Alfred Cave’s The Pequot War. Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

[4] David Pulsifer, ed., “Acts of the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England,” in Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England (Boston: Press of W. White, 1859), 9:6.

[5] Officials in Massachusetts Bay were constantly concerned with the independent nature of their colony and challenges of authority made present by the other New England colonies, various Indian groups, and forces within England. See Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

[6] Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of W. White, 1854), 4.1:143.

[7] For further accounts of King Philip’s War and the English interaction with the Narragansetts, see Daniel R. Mandell, King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); James D. Drake, King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

[8] Acts of the United Colonies, PCR, 10:456; MCR, 5:66-7.

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“Thanks AOL!” Technology and Public Opinion in the Early Post-Cold War Era

by Samantha A. Taylor, Guest Contributor

“Dear Mr. President: I as a Citizen of the United States of America am deeply concerned and appalled at the apathetic stance taken by the US government and the United Nations toward the situation in Bosnia. As the Serbs have recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of their inhuman and atrocious genocide against the Muslims in former Yugoslavia, the US stands by idly and watches the carnage in Europe. Not only is the United States doing nothing to help Bosnians, it is in fact aiding the Serbs by tying the hands of the victims with an immoral arms embargo on the region…President Clinton, during your Presidential Campaign, you spoke of the arms embargo as being unjust. You stated that the U.S. should consider lifting this embargo. We voted for you on this premise. We voted for you because we though that you, unlike your predecessor would do something about the miserable conditions of the Bosnians. Please do no let us down. Please do not forget your own words. Please pressure the United Nations to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.[1]


E-mail from Faisal Sheikh to President Bill Clinton, Jan. 6, 1995, Clinton Presidential Records, William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

This is a portion of one of thousands of letters and e-mails that President Bill Clinton received from American citizens during the Bosnian crisis of 1992 to 1995. I found a copy of this e-mail while conducting dissertation research at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and it caught my attention because as I went through the folder, I found it again and again. It was not until I re-read the e-mails and noted the date on each one that I realized the author had sent it every day for a month.

During Clinton’s presidency, e-mail was becoming a popular replacement for traditional mail. I can still remember my family’s first Microsoft Windows computer and watching my dad set up AOL in our house. This letter shows how technology changed the way we communicate with our elected officials. The writer could send the e-mail – and thus express his opinion on Bosnia – to the president as often as he wanted simply by pressing a button. Today we can send Facebook messages or tweets to our elected officials, so there is no shortage of ways in which citizens can express themselves on policy issues. My dissertation covers the early post-Cold War era, a period which coincided with the beginning of the digital revolution, and because I focus on public attitudes toward foreign policy, the rise in e-mail use means I have access to many more opinions than I might have had if I were studying a period when “snail mail” was the primary mode of communication between citizens and their government.

President Clinton received so many e-mails from his constituents that he had staff members dedicated to recording and analyzing them to help him get a sense for what was on citizens’ minds. As a result, Clinton regularly received e-mails from his staff describing the communications that the White House received. In September 1994, when a U.S.-led coalition force backed by the UN invaded Haiti to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency, the White House saw a spike in e-mail traffic from citizens wanting their voices heard on the issue:

“Its been busy around here. We received 15,000 messages in four days on the subject of Haiti. AOL decided it would be fun to encourage its members to watch the President’s speech and send email reactions via their service. We’ve had spikes before; they usually doubled the mail. This time we received six times the average mail for four days after the speech. Thanks AOL! GRRR @#(*%&@.”[2]


Southern Miss History Ph.D. candidate Samantha A. Taylor at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, TX, fall 2015.

In my recent trips to the Clinton and George H.W. Bush presidential libraries, I spent a great deal of time studying the correspondence both presidents received, and I noted several trends. The Bush and Clinton presidencies were four years apart, yet in that time, technology changed tremendously, and the way Americans contacted their president and voiced their opinions about current events changed with it. In the Clinton Library, there were very few physical letters; the predominate means of communicating with the president was via e-mail. I noticed that the majority of the e-mails from citizens were very short, and the majority of the physical letters came from Congressional members or organizations. In the Bush archives, the correspondence I found were mostly physical letters regardless of whether they were from individuals, Congressional members, or organizations. The advent of personal computers, the internet, and e-mail made it easier for individuals to contact the White House and express their opinions about the president’s policy choices.

The archivists at both libraries were extremely helpful, and they me guided toward collections that had only recently been opened to the public, including the Persian Gulf War Files in the Public Mail Files at the Bush Library. This collection contains all the “snail mail” that President Bush received about the first Gulf War from August 20, 1990 to May 20, 1991. This collection provides valuable insight into the ways the American public understood and felt about America’s efforts to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Letters like these are important for my dissertation because they shed light on the ways in which the public understood policymaking related to the conflict. As a result, I am able to see how citizen attitudes affected the development and implementation of foreign policy decisions in the early post-Cold War period. These letters allow me not only to analyze public opinion about U.S. actions in the Middle East, but also how the public viewed the post-Cold War period and the U.S. role in it. In the early 1990s, regime change and technological innovation transformed the world in numerous ways, and new technology allowed Americans to express their opinions about the rapidly-changing world to policymakers more quickly and frequently than they could in the pre-internet era.

Samantha A. Taylor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the department’s 2016-17 McCain Fellow. Her research has been funded in part by the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, and the Lamar Powell History Graduate Scholarship from the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is currently working on her dissertation “‘Gosh I Miss the Cold War’: Post-Cold War Nationalism in the United States and Germany,” under the supervision of Dr. Heather Stur.


[1] Email To President Bill Clinton From Faisal Sheikh, January 6, 1995, [OA/ID 5000,000] WHO To President: Bosnia, Serbs, Serbia, Public Opinion, Automated Records Management System [Email] [01/10/1995-06/08/1995], Clinton Presidential Records. William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

[2] Email, Stephen K. Horn to D Byers, ‘RE: What’s up?’ September 29 1994, [OA/ID 500,000] WHO [Haiti or Operation Uphold] Automated Records Management System [Email], [09/19/1994-10/07/1994], Clinton Presidential Records.

Posted in Bill Clinton, dissertation, George H.W. Bush, Gulf War I, Haiti, Post-Cold War, Public opinion, research, war and society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Evanescent Courage”: The Fire Zouaves Go To War

by Lesley J. Gordon, Guest Contributor


“Col. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves,” Harper’s Weekly, May 18, 1861.

When the American Civil War began, and heady martialism swept the nation, twenty-four year old Elmer Ellsworth sought to raise a regiment of Zouaves. Based on French Algerian troops, Zouaves were trained in precision drill and distinctive in their colorful uniforms. Ellsworth, a former law clerk and close friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, had already been promised “the best position in the military which can be given you.”[i] Determined and restless, Ellsworth, who rejected desk appointments in the War Department, wanted a field commission. He was selective, too, about who was suitable to serve under him: “I want the New York Firemen for there are no more effective men in the country, and none with whom I can do so much. They are sleeping on a volcano at Washington and I want men who can go into a fight now.”[ii]

Indeed, volunteer firemen seemed the quintessential definition of idealized “martial manhood” in mid-19th century American society. As historian Amy Greenberg explains, these firemen “identified themselves as manly men, first and foremost, and vied their membership as a masculine brotherhood, where strength, appearance and bravery determined the ultimate value of an individual.”[iii] Even for an urbanizing metropolis like New York, firemen, many of them Irish immigrants and working class, seemed the ideal counter to white southern slaveholders’ claims of martial superiority. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves, with their unconventional training and conspicuous dress, appeared perfectly scripted to spearhead the North’s war effort. Harpers Weekly agreed, declaring: “Our firemen brave as steel, would be restive under the stiff restraints of light infantry tactics, whereas the comparative freedom and dash of the Zouave drill suit them exactly.”[iv] Lincoln’s secretary John Hay described them as “a jolly gay set of blackguards.” “They were,” he judged, “in a pretty complete state of dont care a damn, modified by an affectionate and respectful defense of the Colonel.”[v] Hays marveled after watching them drill: “They are the largest sturdiest and physically the most magnificent men I ever saw collected together.”[vi]

However, the very traits that defined the Fire Zouaves, their brash, rabble-rousing


“Willard’s Hotel, Washington, Saved by the New York Fire Zouaves—Sketched by Our Special Artist,” Harper’s Weekly, May 25, 1861.

behavior, would prove disastrous. Col. Ellsworth, impatient to prove his men’s fighting prowess, left the state on his own accord. New York’s governor repeatedly urged Ellsworth to wait, that his regiment was too large and unwieldy and not ready for the front. By early May, the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, or Fire Zouaves, arrived in Washington, D.C.

Not only did New York City firemen make good copy, but the Zouaves’ brazen behavior only drew more attention. While quartered in the U.S. Capitol, members held raucous mock sessions and swung from ropes suspended in the unfinished rotunda. Residents of the district accused the firemen of deliberately setting fires so they could put them out. At one point, their unruliness led to a direct reprimand from Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, commander of the Department of Washington, warning Ellsworth that he was “entitled to fuel,” but that he would have to be “careful not to burn fences, as some have already been burnt.”[vii] When a fire broke out in the middle of the night near the famed Willard Hotel, it was the Fire Zouaves who triumphantly doused the flames.

Then on May 24, 1861, tragedy struck the regiment. Soon after their arrival in Alexandria, Virginia, Ellsworth impulsively rushed to remove a rebel flag flying conspicuously atop an inn.   Shot at point blank range by the defiant innkeeper, Ellsworth died immediately. But the regiment Ellsworth had so proudly raised was in disarray.

Two months later, the Fire Zouaves fought in the Battle of Bull Run. As one historian of the battle states, they were “the most famous volunteer regiment in the Union army, and many people expected big things from them.”[viii] Ordered, along with other units, to support an artillery battery on Henry House Hill, the Zouaves faltered and panicked. Some regrouped and continued to fight, several valiantly so; but most joined the general Union

Zouaves Bull Run

There were mixed accounts of the Zouaves’ performance at Bull Run. This popular print stresses their bravery in the midst of the battle’s chaos. “Gallant Charge of the Zouaves and the Defeat of the rebel Black Horse Cavalry,” Currier & Ives, 1861. Courtesy Library of Congress.

rout. The Battle of Bull Run was a humiliating Union defeat.

When they took stock of their casualties for the day, they were high: nearly 200 lost in killed, wounded, missing or captured. Within days of the battle, serious charges began to circulate. Col. Andrew Porter reported: “The evanescent courage of the zouaves prompted them to fire perhaps a hundred shots, when they broke and fled, leaving the batteries open to a charge of the enemy’s cavalry, which took place immediately.”[ix] Later testimony pointed to their performance on Henry House Hill as the pivotal moment when the entire battle shifted against the Union. Captain Charles Griffin, most tellingly, blasted the New Yorkers’ “moral courage to fight,” and “disorganized state.”[x]

The Fire Zouaves never recovered. Survivors were reorganized and returned to New York City, where they angrily protested what they believed were unfair charges. A present-day blog claims that the Battle of Bull Run haunted and undermined the Zouaves with a “dismayed public” “looking for people to blame.”[xi] By June 1862, the unit was formally disbanded.

What few recognized, at least at the time, was that the onslaught of civil war caused societal expectations and assumptions about bravery and cowardice to change. Many Americans, even firemen, heralded as heroes in peacetime, found their worlds and sense of self changing just as quickly.

Lesley J. Gordon is Professor of History at the University of Akron and former editor of Civil War History (2010-2015). Her publications include General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), and A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2014).  She is presently at work on a book manuscript entitled Battlefield Cowardice: Violence, and Memory in the American Civil War.

[i] Abraham Lincoln to Elmer Ellsworth, April 15, 1861 in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, 1953), Vol. IV: 333.

[ii] Quoted in Charles A. Ingraham, Elmer E. Ellsworth and the Zouaves of ’61 (Chicago, 1925), 127.

[iii] Amy Greenberg, Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1998), 8.

[iv] Harper’s Weekly, May 11, 1861.

[v] John Hay, Diary Entry, May 2, 1861, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay. Michael Burlingame and John R. Ettinger, eds.(Carbondale, 1997), 17.

[vi] Hay, Diary Entry, May 7, 1861, Inside Lincoln’s White House, 20.

[vii] Joseph K. Mansfield to Elmer Ellsworth, May 9, 1861, quoted in Ingraham, Elmer E. Ellsworth, 136.

[viii] David Detzer, Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run (Orlando, 2004), 402.

[ix] Report of Col. Andrew Porter, Sixteenth U. S. Infantry, Commanding 2nd Division, 1st Brigade, July 25, 1861, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols.(Washington, DC: 1880-1901, series 1, vol. 2, 385.

[x] Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in Three Parts (Washington, D.C, 1863), 174.


Posted in Manhood, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, Union Army, war and society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe”: American Women in Combat

by Heather Marie Stur


U.S. Army Specialist Fourth Class Alyssa Wells, Supervisor Guard, 186th Military Police Company, watches from the roof as women come out to the courtyard in the Rusafa Prison Complex, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced that the armed services would open all combat positions to women in anticipation of President Obama’s January 2016 deadline for doing so. What this means, Carter told reporters at a press conference, is that servicewomen will “be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”[i] Pentagon officials have stated that the armed forces will not modify their standards or set quotas for women. Those in favor of allowing women to officially serve in combat hail the decision as a crucial step toward the full integration of women into the military and the removal of a barrier to career advancement. Opponents cite studies indicating women’s physical limitations and argue that women in combat will weaken unit cohesion. Some feminists argue that integrating women into the military fails to challenge a war making system grounded in patriarchal ideas about power and domination. Buttressing the various opinions in the debate are cultural beliefs about gender, citizenship, and security.

The history of women in the U.S. military is one of gradual integration and fairly consistent cultural resistance. Women began serving officially in the armed forces when the Army and Navy established nurse corps in the early 1900s. Long considered “women’s work,” nursing was an acceptable field in which women could serve, but when American women joined civilian rifle clubs and civil defense groups during World War I, this subversion of traditional ideas about men as protectors and women in need of protection shocked the American public. The idea of armed women defending the nation ran counter to the prevailing gendered divisions between home front and battlefront.[ii] During World War II, manpower needs led the Army to establish the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which opened clerical, intelligence, communications, and other non-combat specialties to women. Critics decried this type of mobilization of women, arguing that women did not belong in harm’s way and that the WAC would be a haven for lesbians and “loose women.”[iii]

When the Defense Department abolished the draft at the end of the Vietnam War, the armed forces launched recruitment campaigns targeting women in order to help fill the ranks of an all-volunteer force. The U.S. military academies began admitting women in 1976, and the Army dissolved the WAC in 1978 and integrated servicewomen into the regular army.[iv] At that time, Family: The Magazine of Army/Navy/Air Force Times published an article about the post-Vietnam expansion of women’s service opportunities titled “You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe,” a play on the old Virginia Slims slogan. It discussed the new military opportunities for women and the negative reactions to them by some citizens and servicemen. Expressing opposition in terms similar to those used by critics of the WAC in the 1940s, opponents viewed servicewomen as either “hopeless nymphomaniacs” or “a hopeless loser or lesbian.”[v] Despite the resistance, 62 women cadets graduated from West Point in 1980. In the early 1990s, more than 40,000 American women served in the Gulf War, and Congress authorized servicewomen to fly combat missions and serve on combat ships. About 300,000 American women have served in the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In August, the first two women graduated from the Army’s elite Ranger School.[vi]

This history suggests that the opening of all combat specialties to women would be the next step in a century’s worth of progress toward gender equality in the U.S. military. But neither the Pentagon nor the president can force a change in Americans’ beliefs about who can and should fight. At the heart of some critics’ resistance to women in combat is conscription. Opponents worry that if the U.S. reinstates the draft, women would have to be subject to it because they can now serve in combat. The primary purpose of a draft is to fill infantry positions vacated by killed or wounded soldiers. Women, along with men, could be compelled to take up arms and fight. Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, put it this way: “If you’re going to have women in infantry units, if a draft ever occurred, America needs to realize that its daughters and sisters would be included. The reason you draft people is because you have infantrymen dying.”[vii] Daughters and sisters. More than questions about women’s ability to carry sixty-plus pounds while maneuvering a weapon and running, the notion that the federal government could order daughters and sisters to the front lines is, to some critics, the most troubling consequence of opening combat positions to women. This mindset is deeply rooted in the ideas that men are to protect women, especially younger women who are or could be mothers, and that the home front and the battlefront are gendered separate spheres to be controlled by women and men, respectively. If sons and brothers are drafted and subsequently killed in war, it is a tragic but necessary fulfillment of duty to the nation. If the same happens to daughters and sisters, it is a cause for outrage against the gender equality movement for upending the natural order of things.

War has proven that all of these divisions – protector versus protected, home front versus battlefront, motherhood versus military service as ultimate civic duties – are artificial. Resistance to women serving in infantry jobs remains even though servicewomen have already seen direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before those conflicts, in the Vietnam War, women military nurses worked in hospitals that were routinely attacked, and WACs found themselves diving into bunkers with their male comrades to ride out mortar attacks. There were no front lines in Vietnam, or in Iraq or Afghanistan. These dichotomies have been even more artificial for non-American women. My friend and Dale Center fellow, Allison Abra, explained to me that historians of Britain have argued that since the aerial bombings of World War I, opponents of women in combat could not focus as much on shielding women from the violence of war because not even civilian women were protected from harm when the home front was the battlefront. If the goal is the full integration of women into the U.S. military, the next and most difficult step is to let go of these imagined divisions and focus on measurable data when thinking about men’s and women’s appropriate roles in wartime. If a woman can graduate from Ranger School under the same standards that apply to men, why shouldn’t she serve in combat?

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011). She is currently writing Saigon at War: The Third Force and the Global Sixties in South Vietnam (Cambridge, forthcoming).

[i] Matthew Rosenberg and Dave Phillips, “All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015.

[ii] Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

[iii] Leisa Meyer, Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[iv] Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Beth Bailey, America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010).

[v] Stur, 226.

[vi] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “Women in combat? They’ve already been serving on the front lines, with heroism,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 2015.

[vii] Austin Wright, “Republicans raise alarm about women in combat. Their subtle warning: It could force all young women to register for the draft,” Politico, Dec. 3, 2015.

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Dissertation Research in the Age of Social Media

by Robert Thompson, Guest Contributor

My dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the US Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” focuses on pacification in Phu Yen during the Vietnam War and argues  that pacification meant improving security and was ultimately betrayed by Vietnamization. Much of my research has been of the traditional archival sort and has taken me to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Hoover Institution, McCain Library and Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration II. From that research, I identified individuals who served in Phu Yen as members of Civil Operations and Rural Development’s (CORDS) Advisory Team 28. Thanks to social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as blogs, I have been able to actually get in contact with some of the veterans who served in Phu Yen so that I could conduct oral histories with them. This type of “nontraditional” research has provided crucial information about the pacification process and results that are not written into the documentary record. Social media has also helped me connect with other researchers working on the Vietnam War and pacification, and this community of scholars has provided me with leads, key documents, and moral support.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

The initial ideas for “More Sieve Than Shield” grew out of my reading of the various documents in the Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi’s McCain Library and Archives. From the very beginning of my dissertation research, I realized that to understand pacification in Phu Yen meant gaining the perspectives of the veterans who served in that province. By far the most reveling primary sources are the district reports and the monthly province progress reports. During the Vietnam War, the districts of Dong Xuan, Hieu Xieu, Song Cau, Son Hoa, Tuy An, and Tuy Hoa formed Phu Yen province. While reading the district reports, I uncovered a trove of brilliant descriptions of the poor security situation befalling Phu Yen. Between 1969 and 1970, rampant abductions of civilians by the Viet Cong made Phu Yen one of the least secure provinces in the Republic of Vietnam. The reports present pacification as a failure.

After reading the files in Frobenius’s collection, I noted the names of his superiors and sought to gain their view of events, turning to social media to track down some of the District Senior Advisors (DSA) and Province Senior Advisors (PSA). I began my search by writing a blog post on my website,, asking for leads. The first person to respond was Charles Varnum, who served as a DSA in 1971. From him I got enough information to track down his superior in Phu Yen, PSA Russell Meerdink, and I searched online for DSAs Robert Barron, Eugene Fluke, and Ellis Wisner, all of whom served in Tuy Hoa District. With little difficulty, I contacted Barron and Wisner. Wisner even invited me to his home, where we drank coffee and discussed the Tuy Hoa District he remembered.

Tuy Hoa district report, Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi. Image courtesy of the author.

Tuy Hoa district report, U.S. National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Image courtesy of the author.

Finding Fluke proved a bit more challenging. Fluke’s district reports provide a wealth of information, and I was eager to speak with him. Fluke had uncovered the GVN’s hiding of Viet Cong abductions from Advisory Team 28, the CORDS team in Phu Yen, exposing what became known as “the Advisory Crisis.” This crisis involved the intervention of the U.S. Embassy in Phu Yen provincial affairs, resulting in the removal the province chief and the redeployment American troops to re-train local defense forces. So helpful were his observations—“More Sieve Than Shield” is a quote from one of Fluke’s district reports—I searched for him on social media. After combing the internet for what felt like forever, I recently found his profile on LinkedIn and gave him a call. From our conversation, I learned that the U.S. Embassy in Saigon completely supported him, and his career was untarnished by the Advisory Crisis. Indeed, Ambassador William Colby thanked Fluke during a private meeting over a bottle of Johnny Walker, a gift Colby told him he thoroughly deserved.

In addition to the Frobenius papers, the website has helped me connect with veterans of Advisory Team 28. It was here that I found Ronald Thayer, a veteran who did three tours in Phu Yen and witnessed the war from start to finish. As a DSA for Son Hoa District, he participated in the little known, yet illuminating, Battle of Cung Son on June 18, 1971, the largest battle in the province after the 1968 Tet Offensive. Cung Son entailed a combined PAVN and VC force converging on the GVN district compound and Regional Force (RF ) base with the objective of ejecting the GVN out of the district. RF and U.S. helicopters eventually won the battle, demonstrating that the RF could fight so long as it could rely on U.S. airpower. The battle also indicated that the enemy still maintained a noteworthy presence in Phu Yen well into the Vietnamization period.

Social media has also allowed me to connect with others who are studying pacification. On Twitter, I have exchanged ideas over what pacification means with other doctoral students, and exchanging tweets with them has led me to reorganize my dissertation chapters and locate invaluable documents at the U.S. National Archives. Critics of province studies argue that a single province cannot explain larger trends in the Republic of Vietnam, but thanks to a contact I made on Twitter, I was able to get U.S. Embassy documents on Phu Yen indicating the importance of the province to the larger war effort. On the Facebook group, Vietnam War History Organization, established by Vietnam War scholar Erik Villard, academics and veterans share information about war, and from this group, I have obtained research leads, after action reports, and maps. In sharing my own research with the group, I have found encouragement and motivation to carry on and keep writing. From practical tools to moral support, the internet and social media offer useful tools for dissertation research and camaraderie in what is often solitary work.

Robert Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is working on his dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” under the supervision of Dale Center Founding Director Dr. Andrew Wiest. Thompson is the recipient of the U.S. Army Center of Military History Dissertation Fellowship and the Hoover Institution Library and Archives Silar Palmer Research Fellowship. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and two sons.

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And the Winner is …

by Andrew Wiest

Dr. Andrew Wiest at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony in New York City, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of the author.

Dr. Andrew Wiest at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony in New York City, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of the author.

I knew from the moment that I met John Young that I needed to write a book about him – a book that sought to redefine the historical vision of the Vietnam combat experience. While immersed in the writing of the book, as the story of Charlie Company emerged in text on my computer screen, I couldn’t help thinking, “Boy, this would make a good movie!” I am sure that thoughts like that have occurred to many a historian, and the thoughts soon passed – subsumed by reality. But then Lou Reda Productions and the National Geographic Channel also fell in love with the story of Charlie Company, and the result was the 2014 release of the documentary Brothers in War. Working as the historical advisor to a documentary based on my book was a very interesting experience. The most difficult part of the process was boiling down 400 pages of text into an hour and forty minutes of screen time. The most enjoyable part of the process was being able to utilize the new tools of film (including home movies shot by the members of Charlie Company) and sound to help tell the intimate story of an infantry company at war. The most surreal part of the process was hearing Charlie Sheen narrate the words that I had written.

Dr. Andrew Wiest and the staff of Lou Reda Productions on the red carpet at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy of the author.

Dr. Andrew Wiest and the staff of Lou Reda Productions on the red carpet at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy of the author.

After well over a year of rather frenetic work (film folks work at a very different pace than that to which most historians are accustomed) Brothers in War was launched at a reunion of Charlie Company at National Geographic Channel Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was a very emotional evening. The veterans were so excited to see one another again, but it was quite hard on them to witness scenes filmed so long ago – scenes in which their best friends were lost in battle. It was their best of days and worst of days come back to life. As the film drew to a close and the lights came up, tears were shed, backs were patted, and congratulations were offered. After Brothers in War aired on television, good news on ratings came in, as did glowing reviews. At that point I was pretty certain that my unexpected foray into the film world had come to an end.

In March 2015, though, some very unexpected news came in: National Geographic was nominating Brothers in War for four Emmy awards – in writing, research, editing, and for Outstanding Historical Programming (the big one). Having National Geographic Channel pick out Brothers in War as its most Emmy worthy documentary of the year was quite an honor in and of itself. Liz Reph, Scott Reda (the director and producer respectively of Brothers in War), and I got together to assemble a submission in all four categories for the folks at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. With that bit of extra work done, I once again assumed that the story was over. I knew that Brothers in War was good, but the competition was so fierce that I just figured that our journey had run its course. But on July 22, more news came in. Brothers in War was an official Emmy nominee for Outstanding Historical Programming.

The rest of the story is something of a blur. We received out tickets to the Emmy awards in New York, we made travel plans, I bought a new tie and a shirt that fit, and we were off. Two of the veterans of Charlie Company, Bill Reynolds and Steve Hopper, were able to join Liz Reph, Scott Reda, Steve Heavner (the sound engineer for the project), Madeline Carter (Executive Producer from the National Geographic Channel), and myself at the ceremony. Festivities began at 5:30 at Lincoln Center in New York. First there was a walk down the red carpet and then drinks and dinner surrounded by hundreds of people I either knew from television or should have known. Next came the ceremony itself. The Brothers in War team was seated together midway through the crowd as Emmy after Emmy flew off of the shelf. Our turn came after Larry King presented Ted Turner with the lifetime achievement award. The lights dimmed as the film began, “And the nominees for Outstanding Historical Programming—Long Form are. . .” Next followed a five second clip of Brothers in War and similar clips from the other four nominees. I am a cell phone Luddite, but my iPhone was on and recording away. The Emmy made its way out to the stage. The envelope was ripped open. “And the Emmy goes to Independent Lens for The Trials of Muhammad Ali.”

Since our category was near the end, the ceremony quickly wrapped up, and a disappointed Brothers in War crew headed outside. The veterans who had joined us for the ceremony were upset that a documentary about Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector who refused to fight in Vietnam, had won the Emmy. But once the disappointment had time to clear, amid a series of farewell hugs, we all came to the realization that it had been such an honor to be there in New York for the Emmys. It was such an honor to be selected as one of the five best documentaries on television for the year. There we were, amid the famous and near famous – a bunch of folks who had tried their best to tell the story of a unique group of veterans. There are so many stories about so many veterans that never get told. Our story did get told. It did get noticed, and we were standing on the red carpet to prove it. We were the lucky ones.

Andrew Wiest, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines (Osprey, 2013) and The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 2012).

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From Small Things: How a Staff Ride Became Two Articles and a Book Project

by Ricardo A. Herrera, Guest Contributor

Philadelphia Campaign Operations, August- December 1777. Image courtesy of the author.

Philadelphia Campaign Operations, August- December 1777. Image courtesy of the author.

While a historian on the Staff Ride Team, Combat Studies Institute, US Army Combined Arms Center, I spent much of the summer of 2008 researching and building a staff ride on the 1777 British campaign to capture Philadelphia, home of the Continental Congress. The research took me to Philadelphia and the immediate environs through which British and Continental forces had maneuvered, fought, foraged, and wintered.[1] My journey led me to Head of Elk (south of Elkton, Maryland), where the British Army landed in August 1777, to the sites of the first skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware, to Kennett Square, the battlefields of Brandywine, Paoli, Germantown, Mud Island, and Whitemarsh in Pennsylvania, and the encampment site at Valley Forge. Venturing across the Delaware River, I walked the ground at Fort Mercer (Red Bank), Billingsport, Salem, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, and Cooper’s Ferry and Cooper’s Creek (Camden), New Jersey.

For a student of military history, there’s nothing quite like walking the ground over which armies marched, fought, or bivouacked. Indeed, to write with any degree of fidelity about a war, a campaign, or a battle, I believe it’s important to walk the ground, if possible, and interrogate it as you might interrogate written evidence, artwork, or material artifacts from the event or period. Battlefields and areas of operations are, therefore, historical documents and classrooms.[2]

Philadelphia Area of Operation. Image courtesy of the author.

Philadelphia Area of Operation. Image courtesy of the author.

Some have suggested that staff rides are old-fashioned, “drum and trumpet” military history because they focus on the tactical realm. But it’s wise not to throw out the baby with the bathwater in our rush to embrace the newest evolutions in military history or in war and society studies. Tactical, and at a higher level, operational, movements are key to understanding the art and science of war and warfare. The topics—terrain, weather, the natural and manmade environments, army organization, tactical practices, weaponry, commanders’ knowledge at the time of the actions, their decisions, troop movements, the outcomes of battle, etc.—of a staff ride offer valuable insights into the nature of battle and the quotidian experiences of participants. Activity, not static positioning, is at the heart of the endeavor; thus the challenge of examining Valley Forge, an encampment.[3]

Seat of War Map

Seat of War Map, Philadelphia. Image courtesy of the author.

To ignore Valley Forge, however, is to ignore an iconic place and event in American history, and, drawing back from abstraction to look closely at details, a significant stage in the Philadelphia Campaign. It was the winter and spring home of the Continental Army under George Washington. Yet, Valley Forge is static and therefore problematic for a staff ride. Washington’s Continentals marched into winter quarters in December 1777 and emerged in June 1778, but no battle took place at Valley Forge. General Sir William Howe, commander-in chief of the British Army, declined assaulting it. What to do? Where to find movement? How best to maintain the staff ride’s tempo?

A discussion of “Feeding Valley Forge” was my answer. “How did the army sustain itself?,” I wondered, “What about security?” Drawing upon Wayne Bodle’s Valley Forge Winter, Frank H. Stewart’s, Foraging for Valley Forge, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and modern military parlance, I cast Valley Forge as an eighteenth-century anticipation of a Forward Operating Base (FOB), a fixed, albeit temporary, post that supports military operations. From “FOB” Valley Forge, the Continental Army maintained a security line to the east and south and sent patrols into the countryside to contest the space between the encampment and British-occupied Philadelphia. Soldiers from “FOB” Valley Forge marched out to forage in search of food and supplies for the army. All this was much more than passively and miserably sitting in freezing huts and starving. Here was action, here was the movement to sustain something of the staff ride’s conceptual momentum.[4]

The Grand Forage, February-March 1778. Image courtesy of the author.

The Grand Forage, February-March 1778. Image courtesy of the author.

In small things, larger goodness often inheres. In February 2009, after arriving on the cusp of a blizzard that closed Valley Forge for a day or two (a much-appreciated irony), I led the staff ride. This and the research behind the staff ride, however, had led me to believe that there was a scholarly article in all of this, one that would examine the events at Valley Forge in the context of operational and tactical-level military history rather than old tropes of valiant and starving Continentals. I decided to focus on the Continental Army’s efforts to sustain itself by focusing on the largest operation it undertook while encamped at Valley Forge, something I termed the Grand Forage of 1778.[5]

The research on the grand forage revealed much about the Continental Army as an active field army, its maturation, and its ability to plan centrally and execute autonomously. The article, “Foraging and Combat Operations at Valley Forge, February-March 1778,” appeared in 2011. The research behind it led to a second article in 2015, “‘[T]he zealous activity of Capt. Lee’: Light-Horse Harry Lee and Petite Guerre.” The deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve discovered, the more questions and suppositions I’ve generated, and the more I need to research, think, and write about the grand forage. From small things came larger questions and answers, and more questions. Back to foraging I must go.[6]

Ricardo A. Herrera is Associate Professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861 (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[1] My staff-ride teammates, Curt King and Chuck Collins, accompanied me on the reconnaissance and initial executions of the ride and were instrumental in its development. Thanks to Kevin Kennedy, my one-time team chief, for his support. Many thanks to John Grenier for reading and commenting on the draft of this short essay.

[2] I am guilty of not having followed (or having been able to follow) my own injunction regarding walking the battlefield in “Brave Rifles at Tall ‘Afar, September 2005.” In Contact!: Case Studies from the Long War, vol. 1, ed. William Glenn Robertson (Ft. Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006): 125-152.

[3] From 2006-2012, I was a historian on the Staff Ride Team, serving as acting team chief in my last months before joining the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), US Army Command and General Staff College. For more on the history and conduct of staff rides, see William G. Robertson, The Staff Ride (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1987).

[4] Wayne Bodle, Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Frank H. Stewart, Foraging for Valley Forge by General Anthony Wayne in Salem and Gloucester Counties, New Jersey, with Associated Happenings and Foraging in Salem County for the British Army in Philadelphia by Colonel Mawhood and Major Simcoe, 1778 (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1929).

[5] Grand forage denoted any large-scale foraging party, typically a brigade or larger.

[6] Ricardo A. Herrera, “Foraging and Combat Operations at Valley Forge, February-March 1778,” Army History 79 (Spring 2011): 6-29; Herrera, “‘[T]he zealous activity of Capt. Lee’: Light-Horse Harry Lee and Petite Guerre,” The Journal of Military History 79, no. 1 (January 2015): 9-36. Thanks to Col. Hank Arnold, Scott Gorman, and Rich Dixon, and to SAMS for their support of my ongoing research.

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Where has the Seventeenth Century Gone? The National Park Service, Battlefield Preservation, and America’s Colonial Military Past

by Kyle F. Zelner

Every year, millions of people visit U. S. National Parks that commemorate, interpret, and memorialize wars, battles, and military sites where Americans served, were wounded, or died. The National Park Service (NPS) administers a total of 408 units—both parks that showcase America’s natural beauty as well as a large number that protect and interpret our history (a sizeable number of these highlight America’s military past). Tourists can visit sites connected to almost all of America’s major conflicts, from Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields to old western forts to World War II home-front locales to sites that honor the late twentieth century’s Global War on Terror. However, the country’s military history is anything but evenly covered. Out of the 81 “military parks,” be they National Historic Sites, National Historic Parks, National Battlefield Parks, National Military Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Monuments, or National Memorials, only five parks—or 6% of the total—commemorate, memorialize, or interpret sites primarily associated with America’s colonial military past.[1] This in spite of the fact that the English colonial period (conservatively 1607-1775) makes up 41% of the 408-year history of America (1607-2015). As a historian of colonial America, I’m used to “my period” getting short-shrift in the nation’s story, but this situation requires change.

The conflict most represented in the National Park system is unsurprisingly the Civil War, with 28 units or 35% of all of the “military parks.” Parks such as the National Military Park at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the Antietam National Battlefield are what most people think of when they consider historic military parks. Next in number are the parks associated with the War for Independence, with 13 units or 16% of the total, including Minute Man National Historic Park which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord or the Yorktown Battlefield part of Colonial National Historic Park in Virginia.[2] There are 12 units (15%) that interpret nineteenth-century conflicts between Native Americans and the U. S. Army, often at forts like Fort Laramie National Historic Site or combat zones like Little Bighorn Battlefield National Memorial. World War II has recently, with an influx of new parks, taken over the fourth spot with 10 units (12%) such as Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama or the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Site in California. Only then comes the five (5) colonial military parks, despite the fact that 41% of America’s timeline (169 years of 408) falls on the colonial side of the scale. If that isn’t bad enough, the number of colonial parks are in a tie with the five parks commemorating the two-year long War of 1812 (including the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Michigan and the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore Harbor).

The author in St. Augustine,  Florida, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The author in St. Augustine, Florida, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

While this situation should be addressed (more on that later), the colonial military units of the National Park Service are wonderful locations that deserve widespread visitation.[3] Interestingly, the majority of the “colonial military parks” memorialize and illuminate not the Anglo-American military past that most people think of when examining the period, but instead other colonial powers’ military pasts. Two of the parks honor the early Spanish military presence in the Southeast, while one memorializes the short-live French fortification of Florida in the 1560s. The most visited of the colonial military parks is also the most impressive—Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest masonry fortress in the continental United States.[4] While the Spanish founded the town of St. Augustine in 1565, the current stone fort wasn’t begun until 1672, after several early wooden forts were destroyed by fire, weather, or privateers. The stone fortress withstood two sieges by English forces, once in 1702 during Queen Anne’s War and the other in 1740 as a part of the War of Jenkins Ear. The fort never fell, but it later changed hands several times in the late-colonial and Revolutionary periods, until the new United States took over the post in 1821. The fortress was an active military post until 1900; it was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. Today, Castillo de San Marcos remains a marvelous example of seventeenth-century Spanish military architecture, with an impressive collection of early artillery pieces from the fort’s long history.

Fort Matanzas. Photo courtesy of the author.

Fort Matanzas. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The next NPS unit from the colonial period is closely associated with the first. Fort Matanzas National Monument is located several miles to the south of the Castillo de San Marcos. The small artillery fort was built by the Spanish in 1742 to guard the southern approaches to St. Augustine after the English besiegers of 1740, led by Governor General James Oglethorpe, attacked the city from the narrow inlets to the south. The fort was named for the Matanzas inlet it sits adjacent to; the name of the inlet translates from Spanish as “slaughters,” which alludes to a much earlier military attack in 1565, when the Spanish massacred a surrendered force of French colonists from northern Florida. The small fort (built by convicts, slaves, and soldiers) held five cannon that were designed to stop another sea-borne invasion. That is exactly what the garrison did in 1742 when General Oglethorpe tried to raid the area again— this time Oglethorpe’s forces were driven off by the garrison at Fort Matanzas before the British got to St. Augustine. The Spanish let Fort Matanzas fall into disrepair in the later colonial period and by the time the United States took control of Florida in 1821, the fort was uninhabitable. The NPS took over the site and started restoring it in 1933. Today the site hosts over a half a million visitors a year.

The third colonial military park is also located in Florida and is closely connected to the Spanish forts around St. Augustine. Fort Caroline National Memorial commemorates the first French colony in what would become the United States, established in 1564. Located today in the city of Jacksonville, the exact original site of the fort is unknown. In 1953 the NPS established the National Memorial and built a reconstruction of the original fort’s palisade in the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. The original fort was built to protect the French settlers, mostly Huguenots under the leadership of René Goulaine de Laudonnière. When the Spanish established St. Augustine the next year, the two rival colonial powers soon came to blows. In 1565, Spanish forces sacked Fort Caroline, slaughtered most of the inhabitants (at the Matanzas Inlet—see above) and occupied the fort until 1569. While it was short lived, Fort Caroline demonstrates the bitter rivalry over American land between colonizing powers—over two hundred years before the American Revolution.

The forth colonial military park in the NPS system is also in the southeastern United States. Fort Frederica National Monument preserves the archaeological remains of a fort and town built in the new English colony of Georgia in 1736 by Governor James Oglethorpe. The fort and town were laid out according to the Oglethorpe Plan based on Enlightenment principles. Located on St. Simons Island in Georgia, around 630 troops garrisoned the fort from 1736 to 1748. English troops from the fortress beat back two attacks by Spanish forces in 1742 at the Battles of Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek during the War of Jenkins Ear. With the end of King George’s War in 1748, the fort was abandoned as a military post. The associated town soon fell into economic decline and was mostly deserted by 1755. Archaeology sponsored by the NPS and the Fort Frederica Association began in 1947. Visitors today can see a large collection of artifacts uncovered by archaeologists, as well as the foundational ruins of some of the fort’s buildings.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The last NPS unit that memorializes the military history of the colonial period is Fort Necessity National Battlefield. The only battlefield in the NPS system from the 169-year colonial period commemorates the battle in the wilderness of Pennsylvania that included the initial blows of what became the French and Indian War.[5] The battlefield, in an area known as Great Meadows, has as its center a reconstruction of the small, temporary fortification (Fort Necessity) that a young George Washington had built to shelter his soldiers and supplies from the attacking French and Indians in July of 1754. After a sharp battle where he was surrounded by numerically-superior forces (and with no hope for reinforcements), Washington surrendered to the French, in the process signing a document (written in French—which Washington could not read) that included a “confession” by the young colonel that he and his men had murdered the French commander’s brother earlier that summer at Jumonville Glen. This incident and the battle at Fort Necessity sparked the French and Indian War, which was eventually fought around the globe. The park, originally a National Battlefield site under the care of the War Department, was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

While these five sites are all poignant, historically significant, and highlight important fragments and periods of America’s military past, there is an entire century and a half—the seventeenth and early eighteenth—left out of the historical coverage these NPS units offer.[6] The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed some of the most momentous military engagements and conflicts in the history of America. In New England, the Pequot War (1634-1638) and King Philip’s War (1675-1678), to name just a few, raged from the coast to the frontier. The Anglo-Powhatan Wars (on and off from 1610-1646) were fought in the Virginia colony, while the Tuscarora War and the Yamasee War were instrumental to the early history of the Carolinas. And of course, there were momentous imperial conflicts in the seventeenth century that were fought both in Europe and in colonial America, including the Anglo-Dutch Wars (17th and 18th Centuries), King William’s War (1688–1697), and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). In order to best understand, interpret, and protect our entire military past, seventeenth-century war sites should be identified, acquired, and brought into the National Park Service system.[7]

I realize this is a tall order in today’s economic climate. However, there is some hope for the future. In 1991, the Secretary of the Interior ordered the National Park Service to establish the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP). The ABPP’s main goal is to promote “the preservation of significant historic battlefields associated with wars on American soil. The goals of the program are 1) to protect battlefields and sites associated with armed conflicts that influenced the course of our history, 2) to encourage and assist all Americans in planning for the preservation, management, and interpretation of these sites, and 3) to raise awareness of the importance of preserving battlefields and related sites for future generations.”[8] To that end, the ABPP has given grants to state and local governments, tribal organization, universities and colleges, and private organizations to help study, identify, and protect over 100 battlefields in 42 states and territories—over 429 projects have been started. While the vast majority of the grants have gone to protect battlefields from the Revolutionary War period forward, there have been several grants made to help protect colonial battlefields.

Since they were first awarded, planning grants have been given to study and protect battle sites from the Yamasee War in South Carolina, an early Indian raid on Dutch settlements in Delaware in 1631, King Philip’s War in central Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Indian attacks on French troops in 1730s Mississippi, the French and Indian War in upstate New York, and the Battle of Bushy Run during Pontiac’s War in Pennsylvania. The most grants for a colonial conflict have gone to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center for their research into the battlefields of the Pequot War. The museum and its dedicated staff of archaeologists, historians, and museum professionals have, with the assistance of the ABPP and the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Nation, identified several key combat zones, including sites associated with the English and Allied Indian attack on Mystic Fort in May 1637 and several battles in the vicinity of Fort Saybrook. The museum has set up two essential websites (one on the Pequot War and a new one on King Philip’s War) to disseminate their reports and keep the public informed on their various projects. The work of the “Pequot War team” at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center—identifying, studying, and interpreting the battlefields of that critical conflict—could possibly lead to a new National Park someday, dedicated to some of colonial America’s earliest warriors and their legacy.[9] I certainly hope so.

Kyle F. Zelner, PhD, is a Co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Miss, as well as the Chair of the History Department. His book, A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War (New York University Press, 2009) was a social history of the men who fought in that seventeenth-century conflict and the town-based militia system that impressed them.

[1] For a listing of all the sites the NPS administers, see: The listing on Wikipedia can also be useful:

[2] Colonial National Historic Park contains parks at Jamestown (commemorating the first permanent English settlement in the area that became the United States) as well as the Yorktown Battlefield of the American Revolutionary War, connected by the Colonial Parkway.

[3] The latest statistics for NPS visitation is from 2014 and are available here: Interestingly, it is not Civil War sites that garner the most “military park” visitation. The ten most visited military parks are, in order, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (DC), the World War II Memorial (DC), the Korean War Veterans Memorial (DC), Colonial National Park (VA), Boston National Park-which includes Bunker Hill (MA), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (GA), Valley Forge National Historic Park (PA), World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (HI, AK, CA), Minute Man National Historic Park (MA), and Gettysburg National Military Park (PA).

[4] Of the five colonial-era military parks, Castillo de San Marcos National Memorial (FL) was the most visited in 2014 with 760,708 visitors. Next, in order of number of visitors: Fort Matanzas National Monument (FL) with 568,529; Fort Frederica National Monument (GA) with 228,103; Fort Necessity National Battlefield (PA) with 219,546; and Fort Caroline National Memorial (FL) with 187,843.

[5] The other NPS colonial military sites have battlefields associated with them, but the battlefields are not the main attraction of the site.

[6] There are a few—very few—historic sites, owned and operated by the states or private organizations that interpret seventeenth century battles. That, however, is will be the subject of another (future) blog post.

[7] This is not to say that private organizations and state park systems have not done a wonderful job preserving some of the country’s most important historic sites. However, I believe that at least a few battle sites from the seventeenth century should be highlighted and preserved at the national level.

[8] The American Battlefield Protection Project, National Park Service, “Mission Statement”

[9] It should be noted that creating a National Park at the site of the Mystic Fort Fight is in no way the stated objective of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center’s Pequot War project. It is simply a suggestion, based on the fanciful hope of the author.

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Using Jesuit Archives for Chinese Military History

by Ken Swope

Dr. Ken Swope next to a replica of a Ming-era orrery that was built by the Jesuits for the Ming court.  The original is at the observatory in Beijing.

Dr. Ken Swope next to a replica of a Ming-era orrery that was built by the Jesuits for the Ming court. The original is at the observatory in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Ken Swope.

One of the great joys of any historian is finding new or under-utilized sources. And it’s even better when the sources are discovered in surprising places. For example most people would not consider Jesuit archives a prime place for locating primary source material on Chinese military affairs but a deeper understanding of the historical circumstances surrounding the early Jesuit missions to China reveals why this might be the case. Founded as part of the Counter Reformation, the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) order was designed to be the “front line” in Catholic conversion efforts, winning souls over for their side throughout the non-European world in the hopes of rolling back the surging Protestant tide in the early sixteenth century. To this end, the Jesuits were often highly trained in languages and the sciences and were expected to use their technical knowledge, especially in the realm of astronomy, to win over rulers and elites around the world and convince them, by extension, of the superiority of the Catholic message. Because of its massive population and ancient and sophisticated culture, China was viewed as a prime location for spreading the gospel. But because China already had a number of ancient religions and was polytheistic to boot, the Christian message wasn’t always the easiest to sell. However, just at the time the Jesuit efforts were expanding their effort, the Ming (1368-1644) empire was experiencing a series of military and political crises. While still preaching the word of God, the Jesuits found that their extensive scientific knowledge, in particular their knowledge of cannon casting, was of great interest to the Ming court and some of its high officials. Several found favor at the Ming court and a few high Chinese official even converted to Catholicism.

At the same time the few Jesuits in China became swept up in the events of their time. Thus it was that a pair of priests, the Portuguese Gabriel de Magalhaes and the Italian Ludovico Buglio, found themselves in Sichuan province in the early 1640s. At the time the province was racked by peasant rebellion and when the Ming capital of Beijing fell to the peasant rebel Li Zicheng in the spring of 1644, Sichuan fell under the control of Li’s longtime rival and sometime ally, Zhang Xianzhong, better known by his sobriquet, the Yellow Tiger. Zhang declared himself ruler of the Great Western Kingdom based in the provincial capital of Chengdu. Buglio and de Magalhaes were eventually brought before the king and impressed him with their scientific knowledge. Zhang made them favored advisers and even promised to build them a great church once he conquered all of China. In exchange they built him globes of Earth and the solar system and advised him on calendrical and astronomical matters. But over the next couple years Zhang’s enemies multiplied and he became increasingly paranoid, massacring tens of thousands of real or perceived enemies. Some outrageous accounts (dis)credit Zhang with exterminating up to 90 percent of the population of Sichuan province in just three years.

The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Ken Swope.

The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Ken Swope.

Traditional Chinese sources tended to vilify Zhang as a madman with an unquenchable bloodlust. They contain lurid accounts of his delight in flaying victims alive and talk of the entire province reverting to a state of total chaos with tigers running rampant and humans turning to cannibalism to survive. Modern Chinese accounts from the communist perspective, on the other hand, tend to praise Zhang as a hero of the people who fought evil landlords to help the peasant class only to meet his end at the hands of the Manchu invaders. Fortunately for historians, de Magalhaes and Buglio chronicled their time at Zhang’s court and left a narrative of their experiences. This document was hidden away in Jesuit archives in Rome for centuries and was only rediscovered by scholars in the 20th century. The original is in Portuguese and a rough translation into English was made by a Jesuit priest in the 1960s. A copy was later sent to the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. Named for the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, the institute was founded in 1984 as a non-profit interdisciplinary research center. Dedicated to studying the history of religious, philosophical, scientific, educational, and cultural exchange between China and the West with emphasis on the Jesuit missions to the Ming and Qing courts, the Ricci Institute supports visiting scholars, publishes books and articles, and sponsors symposia and seminars.

I had known about the Ricci Institute as a result of my general research interests in the history of the Ming dynasty and when I began working on my current book project, On the Trail of the Yellow Tiger: War, Trauma, and Social Dislocation in Southwest China During the Ming-Qing Transition, I decided to check out their holdings online and got in touch with Mark Mir, their outreach coordinator. I was thrilled to learn of the existence of the de Magalhaes narrative and the fact that the Ricci Institute had the only translated copy in existence. I also discovered that they have numerous rare Chinese primary and secondary sources pertaining to the late Ming more generally in addition to the Jesuit materials. Therefore I arranged a research trip to their beautiful campus in late June of 2015. While there I was able to examine this document as well as a number of obscure Chinese language materials. The information found in the diary is invaluable in providing a fairly unbiased assessment of Zhang Xianzhong’s strengths and weaknesses as a ruler, while also confirming some of the stories about his notorious excesses. I am excited about being among the first Western scholars to bring this document to light in my forthcoming research. And it goes to show that one can find incredibly valuable sources in the unlikeliest of places.

Ken Swope, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society and the General Buford Blount Professor of Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. His most recent book is The Military Collapse of China’s Ming Dynasty: 1618-44 (Routledge, 2013).

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