The emotional experience of the Revolutionary War
In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.
Whereas histories of the Revolutionary War traditionally examine the economics, logistics, operations, politics, or sociology of war and combat, some recent studies (e.g. by T.H. Breen, Holger Hoock, and T. Cole Jones) study the war’s emotional impact on combatants and civilians. Cruelty and suffering might seem like obvious topics for research in the history of war, but in fact, they represent a relatively new field of study. Such studies do, in book form, what the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan did in movie form – they try to place readers on location, allowing them to experience the emotional intensity of the war. More traditional military histories might cover the same ground, but do not focus on individuals; they might inform the reader that the U.S. lost over 1,000 casualties at the Battle of Camden (1780) to convey how costly that manpower loss was to the army’s operations, but they do not convey to readers these dead and wounded soldiers’ suffering. Traditional histories might tell readers about the starving at Valley Forge to convey how crippling supply shortages were for the army’s operations and plans, but they do not try to convey how it felt to starve.
It is unclear, however, what such studies aim to add to the existing understanding of the Revolutionary War. Is their function simply to allow readers to experience the war, or do they offer analysis of the war? Can such experiential accounts of war (blurred, chaotic snapshots of war, like the combat scenes in Saving Private Ryan) even try to provide analysis of the war’s logistics, operations, politics, social organization, economics, or diplomacy? Perhaps their aim is not to analyze the war, but to re-frame it – showing the on-the-ground realities of the war might be a purposeful (though unstated) challenge to the established, coherent narrative of the American Revolution as a conflict between societies; an attempt to create a narrative about individuals, rather than nations.
Regardless, it is curious that such histories expose readers only to the harsh, violent, dispiriting experiences of the Revolutionary War – the pain, terror, suffering, and loss of war. They are habitually silent on other experiences of war – pleasurable experiences of war, like joking around with the guys in camp, carousing on the town, romantic adventures with young women, the strong friendships soldiers form on campaign, how tasty army food is to hungry and exhausted soldiers, the pleasure of sleep…
On the one hand, it is easy to understand why historians are interested only in some experiences of war, but not others – since most scholars are not themselves combat veterans, the violent and bloody aspects of war are naturally more foreign and captivating for them, whereas the other aspects of war are mundane, relatively familiar, and therefore less intriguing. On the other hand, however, this approach to war reporting might be a purposeful effort to show readers war in its full ugliness, reflecting scholars’ disgust with war and violence. This might explain why such sorrowful accounts of war often feature “good wars” – wars that the public generally sees as heroic and inspirational, such as the Revolutionary War, the US Civil War, and WWII – as if to offer a corrective to the positive national narrative that frames these wars in popular culture, from textbooks and museum exhibits to documentaries and movies.