Eighteenth Century Military History: Who Cares?

Contemporary painting of the ‘Wounding of General Braddock’ by Robert Griffing

Contemporary painting of the ‘Wounding of General Braddock’ by Robert Griffing

MA History student Andre Chavez discusses the wider relevance of eighteenth century military history in the context of his dissertation. Andre’s dissertation is an assessment of British Military failure during the initial years of the French and Indian War (1754-1758).

As Walter Bunt Jr. showed students of Woodland Hills High School a reproduction of a British uniform made with “madder red” dye at South Carolina’s military college, the Citidel, Dr. David Preston told them that writing about history is not “a done deal, but a process of discovery”. Preston’s talk concerning the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755, which took place this past November, drew not only grade school students but young historians, creative writers, and journalists.

Preston’s right, history is certainly no forgone conclusion. Revisionists are always challenging the views established by the previous generation of scholars. Publications released in the past six months alone offer new and exciting avenues for undergraduates and postgraduates of the French and Indian War to explore. This past year, Swansea University’s own Richard Hall released an article investigating the psychological impact of Indian brutality in combat on the British and American soldiery of the Braddock campaign that undoubtingly promises to encourage further investigation and research as a new alcove of historical interest. Just last month, George Yagi, a key contributor to my work, published his PhD thesis making his claim to the origins of British military failure during the initial stages of the French and Indian War.

Away from the library, histories about war often feature as prominent learning tools for military professionals. It is no surprise then that US Army Major General Herbert McMaster’s and General Raymond Odierno’s suggested reading lists published by ForeignPolicy.com in June of 2013 and 2014 recommend Fred Anderson’s momentous book on the Seven Years’ War in America, Crucible of War, as a cornerstone to understanding the military events of the past for young officers. Some officers, though very few, have even visited fortifications and battlefields in Western Europe to get a sense and feel for themselves of what happened many years ago.

Yet military history in general seemingly remains on the historical periphery within the academic community. John Shy, renowned military historian, at a University of Michigan conference in 2008 voiced his concern with the words of Oxford historian Keith Thomas: “Military and naval history are exceptionally vigorous with a huge lay following for accounts of battles and campaigns, not all of them intellectually demanding.” A similar complaint faced Shy of military history during his tenure – that the popularity of military history was only of interest to “hormone-driven fraternity boys.” The central premise here is that military history is simply not worth the scarce resources in academia required to teach and learn because its details rarely connect to anything outside warfare itself, and should therefore remain no more than peripheral to what is required of undergraduates who major in history

Shy’s concern with the course of military studies is by no means unfounded, and applies equally in the public sphere. While researching a section in my dissertation concerning the legacy of the French and Indian War in contemporary America, I was shocked to find, from a conversation with Robert Messner, director and sponsor of the Braddock’s Battlefield Museum in downtown Pittsburgh, that the museum sees no more than 500 visitors pass through its doors per year. Roughly only twenty percent of that figure are even aware of the French and Indian War ever taking place before stepping foot in the museum. I knew going into the project that the French and Indian War was not the subject filling the chain bookstore shelves as the public’s number one choice of reading material about warfare, the two world wars hold that title; but nevertheless I was shocked.

As I embark on the final stages of my research project, it has become somewhat helpful to remind myself of why I chose this path to begin with. It has prompted me to ask myself, as Paul E. Kopperman did in his 1977 book on Braddock’s Defeat, ‘does any schoolboy care?’ To some extent, young scholars and students of history, like the those of Woodland Hills, should care. One does not have to look far to find relevant parallels or analogies to current events from history or to make practical sense of historical lessons.

Like Braddock’s regulars that were so easily cut down at the Monongahela in 1755 by Indian and French forces, so too have conventional armies found it difficult to combat indigenous ones in modern times. Such was the case with US 8th Army skirmishes against the North Korean and Chinese forces near Chongchon River in 1950. Or the defeat of the Russian army in the Panjshir valley at the hands of the Mujahedeen in 1983 during the Soviet-Afghan War.

Historical lessons in military history can be found outside of strictly warfare. The years of defeat during the French and Indian War offer many diplomatic and political insights for today’s world. The military failure of the British in North America in the early 1750s bears a striking resemblance to the poor American foreign policy decisions in the Middle East over the past fourteen years. The inability of the British to understand the constitutional origins of American self-governance rooted deep within colonial society, to some extent, mirrors Washington’s strategic limitations; one that has painfully revealed that ideals of American democracy cannot be forced upon the mindset of civilizations and peoples that for centuries before lived by dissimilar traditions and often opposing values. Similarly, anyone looking for answers for the rise of extreme conservatism in America today in the form of the Tea Party, or seeking to understand the causes that led to the wildlife resort takeover by a group of self-proclaimed patriots in Oregon earlier this year should look to the earliest years of colonial settlement in America, and trace the ingrained fear of standing armies and tyrannical governments that was shared by early colonists, and the people of Briton of Stuart leadership in England. The examples and parallels are endless, and point to an underlying fact that transcends the old stereotype of drum and trumpets – strategy, operations, and battles.

It is with hope that my dissertation and the historical literature it presents is of some value to those seeking its contemporary use, and that it somehow helps to bridge the gap that has pushed eighteenth century military history to the margins of the historical profession. Like David Preston and John Shy, I too hope that young students and scholars continue to challenge the traditional definition of military history. After all, it was with much of the same passion and curiosity for military history that thrust me into my topic nearly two years ago.


By Andre Chavez
Part-time History Masters student and full time University Staff member