Fatal Choices: British Redcoats, Scots Highlanders, George Washington, and More

Americans enjoy nurturing the image of British Redcoats that is far more the manufactured product of Hollywood than the reality of history.  The recurring image is that the Brits were effete, prim and proper, constrained by forms and rules, inflexible, brimming with an alleged superiority complex, and quite irritating to work with in military situations.  While James Fenimore Cooper treated the British soldiers with respect in his writings, the movie version of The Last of the Mohicans contrasted the tough, manly Nathaniel Poe (who was supposed to be Natty Bumpo) with a number of His Majesty’s servants who were blockheads.  The British who appeared in The Patriot, while brutal, were easily and often duped by the character played by Mel Gibson.  The trend extends to other wars as well.  Montgomery was quite a boaster and buffoon in contrast to General Patton in the movie named after the latter general.  Even in the epic Bridge Over the River Kwai, the British are often quite irritating to both the viewers and the lone American in the story.

Mel Gibson’s character bests the British officers and even the dog changes sides to join the Americans.

Why shouldn’t we Americans scorn the British?  We not only whipped them in two wars in the 1700s and 1800s, but we got them out of deep trouble in the two world wars.  After all, the British would bring everything to a sudden halt in the midst of the fight simply because it was tea time.  Right?

Truth be known, there are plenty of blunders, too much pomposity, to many vainglorious idiots, and far too many cases such as the battles of Trenton, Yorktown, New Orleans, Singapore, Arnhem Bridge, and others for the British army to be spotless in the eyes of history or Hollywood.  But, as an American, I must refrain since we have had our own multitude of military blunders.  As a Southerner, I would rather not think about Pea Ridge in Arkansas, Shiloh in Tennessee, or Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.  Napoleon once remarked that the winner in battle was the side that made the least number of mistakes.

All this brings me to the topic at hand, which is books about the British military.  Right now, I am dealing with the dilemma of deciding which book to read first.  A connection wit the author gives the inside advantage to the first book listed below.

First up on the roster is The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in British America by Dr. Matthew P. Dziennik.  Several years ago, I was at the Yorktown Battlefield Park.  I was asking someone about the role of Presbyerians in the Continental army and they referred me to a Scotsman who was working there.  With the un-Scottish name of Dziennik (which I think is Polish), I met a young fellow who was in every other respect the ideal Scotsman, meaning the accent and Eric Liddell-like demeanor.  We had a great discussion that day, and in the years that followed, we have kept in contact.  Matthew has traveled back and forth between his native Scotland to the United States and Canada where he has been researching, completing his doctorate,  and teaching.  He is presently teaching history at Annapolis Naval Academy.

Dr. Matthew Dziennik and his wife Sarah in Edinburgh on the occasion of his receiving his doctorate in history.

Along with completing this book, Matthew has the even greater accomplishment of now having a beautiful wife and daughter.  In the area of placing bets about historians, I would advise you to put money on this guy.  This first book is most likely just the first of many.

In terms of the topic,  the Scots provided lots of soldiers for the English (actually German) kings.  While there was plenty of bad blood and feuding between the Scots and the English, the Scots, recognizing the inevitable, found service under the Union Jack agreeable.  Much has been made of the large number of fighting Scots and Scots-Irish on the Patriot side of the American War for Independence.  It makes for a great tale, and those of us who are American and Presbyterian and Celtic, revel in these stories.  But like most popular history, it is distorted.  Scots fought on both sides of the American War as did folks of English heritage.  The British army always had its contingents of Scotsmen.

This book is published by Yale University Press.  As is often the case, it is a bit pricey since it is a hardback university press publication.  But go for it all the same.  I will get back with more as soon as I progress further along in the book.

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Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle is by Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone. It is volume #54 in the outstanding Campaigns and Commanders Series published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  And, it is on sale until July 4 for $21.

The description begins by saying, “Historians have long considered the Battle of Monmouth one of the most complicated engagements of the American Revolution.”  As a history student and teacher, I have not considered anything about this battle.  Battles from the War for Independence such as Bunker Hill (ably discussed in Thomas Fleming’s Now We are Enemies), Trenton and Princeton (ably discussed in David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing and David McCullough’s 1776), and battles in the southern campaigns such as King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Yorktown have caught my attention.  Monmouth is a fog in my mind.

As a battle, the significance is largely related to the behind-the-scenes politics and the battle for George Washington’s position.  He probably had about as much opposition among the Patriots as he did with the British.  Looking at the situation in its time, it can be understood why some might have thought that Washington was not the man of the hour and that maybe Horatio Gates would be a good replacement.  Monmouth provided fodder for the cannons of Washington’s partisans.  The battle itself was a draw, but the politics of the battle was a step toward victory for Washington remaining in command.

As may be obvious, my life is incomplete until I get grounded in both the military and political battle of Monmouth.  Quoting again from the publisher’s description, “Replete with poignant anecdotes, folkloric incidents, and stories of heroism and combat brutality; filled with behind-the-scenes action and intrigue; and teeming with characters from all walks of life, Fatal Sunday gives us the definitive view of the fateful Battle of Monmouth.”

While this book is not primarily about the British Redcoats, they are certainly a part of the supporting cast.

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If I can wade through those two books, I also have The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812 by John Mccavitt and Christopher George.  This is volume #53 in the Campaigns and Commanders Series. (I have about 20 of the volumes and would love to have them all.)  I am familiar with the capture of Washington, the city and not the man, in the unfortunate War of 1812.  As an American, I usually want to whip over these parts of the war and move on to celebrate General Jackson’s victory at New Orleans.  Since Ross burned out capital and send President and Mrs. Madison scurrying for safety, he is not highly regarded or known among Americans.  The White House still bears the marks of the fire.

But war is what it is.  He was not only doing his duty, but seeking to defeat the enemy.  The causes and conduct of the War of 1812 are not examples of America’s brightest shining moments.  This general, who accomplished his mission, suffered from history’s most cruel fate–obscurity.  Let’s give Robert Ross his due.

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I can only mention European Armies of the French Revolution 1789-1802edited by Frederick C. Schneid.  This is volume #50 in the Campaigns and Commanders Series.  It is also on sale.  The chapters cover French, Prussian, Russian, Austrian, Ottoman, Italian, German state armies, as well as the British army.  If I get to The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo by Dallas Gregor, then this would be a good follow-up.

As is often the case, all this blog points to this great problem:  Too many books, too little time.

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