Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Dear Readers,

In America, we are celebrating Thanksgiving. While this holiday is about 20 years too early for the Kabinettskreige era, (1621) I thought that my American readers might be interested in reading the primary sources which this holiday is based on.

The first is from Edward Winslow in Mourt's Relation:

"our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a
special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day
killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time
amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and
amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we
entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the
Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be
not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far
from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

The second is from William Bradford in, Of Plymouth Plantation:

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and
dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good
plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about
cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion.
All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached,
of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And
besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison,
etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn
to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends
in England, which were not feigned but true reports."

Both of these, and more info, is available here:

Enjoy your day, and thanks for reading!


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Historical Events and the Passage of Time

Yep. This is what I want to be.

Dear Readers,

I recently received the question:
"As an historian, do you believe that the passage of time provides greater clarity on historical events? I've always been under the impression that there's a "sweet spot" of clarity that occurs anywhere from immediately after a major historical event, to perhaps a generation or two later, after which it gets over-analyzed, dissected, and distorted. What's your take on that?"

This is a really great question, and I thought that you readers here on Kabinettskriege might be interested. How does the passage of time effect our perception of what really happened in the past? 

For the moment, let us take look at a non-Kabinettskriege era event which occurred within relatively recent historical memory: World War One. How did World War One start? 

If you asked someone in 1915 (a year after the start of the war,) the answer probably would be, "the enemy started it." Thus, a close temporal position to the event does not necessarily give a better look at the event, rather, it makes the people looking at the event more biased. 

If you asked someone in 1943, who started World War One, the answer, in non-German parts of the world, would be, "the Germans." This is because the Germans started the Second World War, and most of the world blamed them for the start of the First World War as well. 

Oddly enough, as the 20th century wore on, American scholars began to blame the Russians for World War One, as, after all, they had undergone a full mobilization before any of the other powers. The reason for this is clear-Russia and America were now enemies. 

Thus, historical interpretations continue to change, even after the people who are involved in the events are long dead. Every generation looks at the past with their own historical lens. Thus, when I look at World War One, what I see is different from someone who will live fifty years in the future. 

 In popular perception, there may be a sweet spot in understanding, and I would argue that it takes about a hundred years to arrive at this point. We are fast approaching the hundredth anniversary of World War One, and I think that we may never understand the First World War better than we do now. The reason is, we no longer have living members who experienced the event around to cloud the picture with their biases, so in this example, we realize that most of the European nations actively contributed to the World War One crisis.  

However, the professionalization of history allows us to understand many parts of the past better than we have in previous generations. While the popular perception of history may become more mythic as time passes, (for example, the almost God-like qualities which most Americans see in the founding fathers) scholarly professional opinion allows for a, "sweet spot," of understanding to continue. In the example of the founding fathers, the current historiography of the American Revolution allows us to better understand groups which have been previously ignored, such as women, slaves, and Native Americans. 

Now, moving on to the claims of over-analysis. This is indeed a problem of American history. That is one of the reasons why many professional American historians are calling for a "synthesis," of history. Books such as Alan Taylor's American Colonies, and Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, are moving us back towards a, "sweet spot," in understanding the past, by incorporating the various arguments into a narrative, and updating previous historical knowledge with new arguments. This allows us to retain past understanding, while bringing to light new documentation, which may slightly alter our way of looking at the past. 

Thus, returning to our World War One example, we have reached a measured consensus where we realize that all parties were at fault, although some might be more at fault than others. However, this consensus can still be updated by professional historians who seek to examine smaller facets of the war, such as the role of women, or the role of the minor Balkan states. Those ideas can then be re-incorporated into the body of knowledge via a large, "synthesis," style history.

In essence, popular understanding of a past event reaches a sweet spot a few generations after the event, while academic historians seek to preserve and improve upon that sweet spot with new research, and then add their new research into the collective understanding. In addition, this research allows us to see how each generation perceives historical events, as a result of their circumstances.

Thanks for Reading,


Monday, November 18, 2013

Sweden in the Kabinettskriege Era

Bringing home the body of Karl XII-Gustaf Cederström
Dear Reader,

In the modern mind, Sweden is viewed as a sort of Scandinavian socialist paradise. The Swedes have given us great writers, like Henning Mankell (Wallander), and great actors, such as Max von Seydow. However, during the Kabinettskriege era, Sweden was known for something else: its empire. During this start period, the Swedes founded an overseas colony, New Sweden, in modern day Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. While the colony was taken over by the Dutch in 1655, small traces of Swedish culture still remain in the area. In addition, the Swedes possessed overseas colonies in Africa between 1650 and 1663. Interested in a timeline of the Kabinettskriege era? Click here. 

However, the Swedes never really possessed a large overseas empire, most of their imperial holdings were in Europe. At the height of Swedish power, the empire included  much of the North German Baltic sea coast, as well as portions of the current Baltic states, such as Latvia and Estonia, the whole of Finland, and a significant part of Norway.

The Swedish Empire (Sweden is Tan, Swedish conquests are in Orange)
While the Swedes were on the rise in the early Kabinettskriege era, by 1721, they had lost most of their overseas possessions in the Stora Nordiska Kriget: The Great Northern War.  Despite an excellent military, the Swedes had been defeated by an alliance of Russia, Denmark, Poland, and Prussia. What is surprising is not that they were defeated, but that they managed to hold out for twenty one years.

They were able to survive for so long as a result of one of the most controversial figures in Swedish history, Karl XII of Sweden, and his Karoliner. The Karoliner were some of the most effective soldiers of the Kabinettskriege era. The Swedish Karoliner used incredibly effective Gå-På (or "Head-On") tactics. These tactics meant that the soldiers would hold their fire until point-blank range, which caused massive causalities to the enemy. After a devastating point-blank volley, the Karoliner would charge fearlessly into close combat, and their panicked enemies would usually flee.

In modern times, many Swedes are atheists, but in the Kabinettskriege era, the Swedish army was held together by a strong belief in the Christian God. The Swedish in this period were Lutheran, and a mix of faith, and Gå-På tactics kept this small, but highly effective, army fighting against impossible odds.

However, this divine protection did not, contrary to Swedish belief, stop musket balls. At the battle of Poltava in 1709, the Swedes were defeated and Karl XII fled to the Ottoman Empire. Refusing to make peace, Karl XII continued the war beyond any hope of Swedish victory. He was eventually killed in Norway, while attempting to besiege a fortress. His death, and the tremendous losses absorbed by Sweden during this war, crushed the Swedish Empire. In addition, this defeat paved the way for the Russians to move into central Europe, with consequences leading up to the present day.

With that knowledge, let us return to the original painting which began this post.

This painting, by Swedish artist Gustaf Cederström, shows the Karoliner bringing home the body of Karl XII, during the so-called, "Karolinian death-march." A Swedish hunter, his son, and their dog, make way for these soldiers. On the hunters back, an enormous bird of prey hangs dead. This death of this majestic bird is intended to mirror the death of the great Swedish king. This epic painting shows the despair of Swedes at the end of the Great Northern War. 

After the death of Karl XII, Sweden's empire never fully recovered. The Swedish empire passed to his sister, Ulrika Eleonora, and her husband, Friedrich I of Hesse-Kassel. While the Swedes were able to defeat the Russians in the war of 1788, and take Norway in 1814, the Sweden's glory days were over. However, now, the Swedish have created a state which is the envy of other Europeans, and an economy which shows signs of strength. 

If we have any Swedish readers, what do you think of Karl XII? Was he responible for the loss of the Swedish Empire? What do you think about Sweden's history in the Kabinettskriege era?

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

Heroes, Villains, and History

Don Troiani's Parker's Revenge
Dear Reader,

The above painting shows British soldiers early in the American War for Independence. When you look at the above men, what do you see? Heroes or Villains?

Who were the, "Heroes" of the Kabinettskriege era? And above all, what does reducing things into the terms of, "right and wrong," achieve in our understanding of the past?

William Potter, an American historian who works for Vision Forum, released an audiobook, entitled, Bayonets! Heroes, Villains and Character Lessons from the American War for Independence. You can find this book here. In this book, Potter attempts to draw spiritual lessons from the American War of Independence. In Potter's view,  the British are the evil villains of the American Revolution, while the Christian Americans were on the side of right. Potter gives excellent and insightful details about the American War of Independence, but I continue to wonder whether his conceptual lens offers any positive results.

While the book is obviously targeted for children, there is no reason why we should portray history, particularly such vital history as the founding of the American nation, in simple, moralistic terms. If the American War of Independence is a simple moral tale, why did so many Americans own slaves? American Slavery shocked and appalled both Hessian and French writers during the revolution.

And what about the idea that the Americans were Christians, and the British were godless? After all, weren't the Americans rebelling against a government, which the Bible instructs Christians to respect? The British soldiers were just as devout as the Americans, as is extremely evident in their letters. The Hessian Subsidientruppen who fought for the British were just as pious, and they often felt disgusted by what they saw as an American lack of religion.

What about the European Seven Years' War? Are there heroes in this context? Why is it we are so eager to say that God and right was on the side of the Americans, but do not have a quick answer for who was right in the contest between Austrian and Prussian?

If we simply want to view the Americans as right, is there truly a need to view the war in terms of heroes and villains? Individual humans are not good or evil. Their actions display both good and evil. They are complex, and it is a disservice to history to portray the past in the simple terms of a morality play.

For our international readers, I have a question: Does this effort to portray the past as a simple battle between good and evil occur in your countries? If so, what form does it take?

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

Friday, November 8, 2013

France in the Kabinettskriege Period

Map of France 1675-1726
Dear Reader,

Throughout the Kabinettskriege period, France was the largest single state in western Europe. The French had not suffered the same type of economic and demographic drain from the Thirty Years' War as the German states. In addition, by virtue of the unified nature of the French state, it could afford to raise much larger armies than the smaller, dis-unified states of Germany. Also, as a result of the nature of Absolutism in France, afford to maintain a much larger standing army in peacetime than the English, making mobilization for war much quicker. This has led scholars to refer to France, in the early modern period, as, "The eight hundred pound gorilla of Europe." Why then, in the course of the Kabinettskriege period, did the French lose much of their empire overseas, and not win ground in Europe?

The French Victory at Ticonderoga-1758

Explanation One: The French haven't the Nature for War. 

To this day, in English and American circles, the French are accused of cowardice, effeminacy, and laziness. A common joke is that the French "salute" is raising your hands in surrender. In Last of the Mohicans, there is a scene where a British general expresses these exact views. It should not come to as a surprise to anyone that this is completely anachronistic. During the Kabinettskriege era, the French had an excellent military-one that often terrified their opponents.

During the early part of the Kabinettskriege period, the French military under Louis XVI threatened to destroy the balance of power in Europe. Some of the largest battles of the Kabinettskriege period occurred during the War of the League of Augsburg, and the War of Spanish Succession. (See a timeline of the period here.)

While the English choose to focus on this period of history as a time when John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was winning his spectacular victories against the French, the truth is that both sides achieved victories, which is one of the reasons why the war dragged on for almost fifteen years.  During this period, the French were repeatedly able to raise large, well trained armies, which required large alliances of minor powers to stop.

In the middle of the Kabinettskriege period, the French were able to defeat the British again and again during the War of Austrian Succession. British histories of this period choose to focus on the successes in North America, the success against the Jacobite rebellion, or indecisive win at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. The truth is that the French won three out of the four major field battles of this war: Fontenoy, Rocoux, and Lauffeld. In the absence of a large force of Austrians to protect the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium,) the French turned battlefield success into strategic gains time and time again. At the end of the war, the French were forced to give back these conquests to have their own overseas losses returned to them.

Finally, as we have already seen repeatedly on this blog, the French were able to defeat the British in the global Eight Years' War which surrounded the American War of Independence. Thus, we have clear evidence of French capability in the early, middle and late Kabinettskriege era.

Having thoroughly disproved the notion that the French soldiers or armies were somehow inferior, we must move on to-

English Cannons at the Siege of Louisbourg (1745) 

Explanation Two: The French had different objectives during the Kabinettskriege era

This idea indicates that the French somehow valued their overseas colonies less than the British during the course of the eighteenth century. Sadly, this idea is also not true.

Unlike the British, the French did not benefit from being unconnected to continental Europe. They had no defensive moat to complicate invasions. The only moat they had was the French army. While the French repeatedly tried to invade Britain throughout the course of the Kabinettskriege era, they also had to defend French borders from British amphibious raids, and the armies of continental Europe-something that the British histories of the Kabinettskriege era spend little time discussing. While the French usually had some sort of ally for their European wars, their allies rarely gave them hard physical support, in the way that the British and Western German states supported each-other throughout the Kabinettskriege era. The British population of North America also greatly outweighed the French speaking population, which allowed the British to raise numerous militia type forces to assist in combating the French. While the French also raised militias, they were very small compared to the British militias.

Why didn't the French send more support to America, and carve out an overseas empire during the eighteenth century? I can only answer that they sure didn't do it for lack of trying. They simply had their hands full.  That leads us to:

Victor-Francois, Duc de Broglie
Explanation 3: Poor Higher Command

While the French often had excellent commanders, such as the gentleman above, they also suffered from a number of poor commanders, particularly in the European theater of Seven Years' War. Since these often mediocre generals commanded, as we have seen above, a large portion of the French military, their poor decisions had an out of proportion effect. To a lesser extent, they also suffered from "victors' disease" from the War of Austrian Succession. They had successfully defeated the British on the continent during the last three battles of the War of Austrian Succession, so there was no reason to improve the army in the intervening years before the Seven Years' War. This, combined with continental obligations, caused the French to lose their overseas empire in Canada during the Seven Years' War, which was the only truly decisive conflict of the Kabinettskriege era.

Sorry-this one ran WAYYY long. I'm thinking about doing posts like this (but shorter) for each of the main European nations in the Kabinettskriege era. Do you like this plan? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

Feel free to follow the blog if you liked this post. It's free, and let's me know that you enjoy what I write-basically the only reason I do this blog! 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Battle of Rossbach: 5th November, 1757

Map of Rossbach from-Rossbach and Leuthen: Prussia's Eagle Resurgent
Dear Readers,

When we last left our heroes, the Prussian army was shadowing a larger French and Reichsarmee force. (The Reichsarmee was made up of troops from a motley collection of small German states.) While the French and Reichsarmee had the advantage in terms of number of soldiers, (about 40,000 to 22,000) the Prussians indisputably outmatched the allies in terms of quality.

On the morning of November 5th,  the allies began a wide flanking move in an effort to get around the Prussian army, and potentially destroy it with a flank attack. The supposedly "Great" king, Frederick, failed to notice this movement on the part of the enemy, he was busy having lunch.  The first Prussian to notice the movements of the enemy was Frederick's young Flügeladjutant, Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Ersnt von Gaudi. According to historian Christopher Duffy, Gaudi reported to the king, "who was lunching with Prince Henry (his royal brother) Seydlitz, and a number of officers in the chamber below. If there was anything Frederick disliked more than having his monologues interrupted, it was signs of panic in a junior officer." Frederick told Gaudi that he was wrong about the flanking movement. Later, when the commander of a Frei-Battalion charged with watching the French, (the same Frei-Battalion a certain young Baron von Steuben was serving in...) reported the same, he was met with similar disdain from the great king.

Frederick dismisses Gaudi's (on right) report

However, Frederick is not, as historian Franz Szabo claims, totally at fault. After all, he had created a system in which these younger officers could report to him, and encouraged initiative among his advisers.  While I agree with Szabo that Frederick was in the wrong in this instance, I can not share his opinion on the Prussian military, which encouraged initiative, so that the army would not be destroyed if the king was at fault.

In time, when the movements of the enemy became more clear, subordinate Prussian officers made plans for movement in spite of the king's indifference, a move which undoubtedly saved the Prussian army. Frederick, finally awakening to the danger, moved prepared his infantry to move, and instructed General Seydlitz to take command of the Prussian cavalry.

The map of the Battle of Rossbach, from Christopher Duffy's: Prussia's Glory, pg 67.

Seydlitz immediately sprang into action, and his cavalry attack shattered the allies advanced guard. Young Fahnen-Cadet von Barsewisch, who we heard from in the last post, described the battle from his place with Prussian Regiment von Meyerinck (IR 26), on the map, von Meyerinck is right by the box which reads, "Final Attack."  Barsewisch describes the battle:

"To that end, His Majesty had re-positioned eight Battalions, of which our regiment was one, because of the re-positioning of the enemy.  There we stood, calmly, and went about our lunch, while awaiting further orders.  At roughly 2 O’clock in the afternoon, the enemy suddenly shifted their march left towards Rossbach, in an effort to turn our left flank, and began to march up. The speed with which we broke down the camp, formed battle array, and began to march up was indescribable. About 3 O’clock in the afternoon, a cannonade began, and the army stood in battle order. Our cavalry on the left wing, under the command of General Seydlitz crashed into the enemy cavalry, and on the second shock, the enemy cavalry took flight, and threw many of the infantry behind them wholly into ruin.
 Our infantry battalions from the left wing appeared from under our cannon, and engaged the French Swiss corps in such a way that they were still in columns. These columns were in the form of an ancient Phalanx, and through want of time and space to deploy, they were situated in rows of men a hundred deep. In this manner, they attempt to charge. This unstoppable Swiss Phalanx of left thousands of dead behind, and the whole of the French army was in such confusion, that they attempted to escape and flee, and by nightfall, they had left their cannons behind and were totally defeated by our left wing."

In essence, the Prussian cavalry attacked, defeated the enemy cavalry, and then reformed. The Prussian infantry regiments advanced on the allies, who were still in marching columns. Desperately, these marching columns attempted to charge and break the Prussian infantry through force of shock. The incredible firepower of the Prussian infantry and artillery stopped this attack, which developed into a firefight. This phase of the battle is artistically represented below:

Painting from- Rossbach and Leuthen: Prussia's Eagle Resurgent 
 However, by this point in the battle, General Seydlitz had reformed the Prussian cavalry, and they attacked the flank of the allies, throwing their army into a total rout.  The Prussian's lost 548 men, while the allies lost 5,000 dead and wounded, and 5,000 prisoners. Franz Szabo deliberately misrepresents these casualty figures, stating that the allies only lost 5,000 total men.

 While Frederick may have been slow to recognize the danger, and even slower to accept the advice of his subordinates, his handling of the main infantry line enabled the allies to be caught between the anvil of the Prussian infantry, and the hammer of Seydlitz and Prussian cavalry.

Why is Rossbach important? Why should we "remember remember," THIS 5th of November?

Remember in the last post when I was talking about how the English had been basically knocked out of the war, and the French were going to be able to send more troops to North America? Rossbach changed all that. This Prussian victory gave the British an excuse to get back into the war in Europe, where they were able to prevent French expansion into western Germany. It also tied down French forces in Europe, which allowed the British to conquer Canada, which retains ties with the British to this day. If this battle had not happened, the Seven Years' War would have been much shorter than seven years, with a different victor.

If this 5th of November had not occurred, the whole geopolitics of the Atlantic world could be radically different than it is today. That is why you should remember the 5th of November, 1757.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

If you liked this post, let me know in the comments below! Feel free to follow the blog. Its free, and lets me know that you enjoy what I'm doing-basically the only reason I write this thing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

November 1757

The lead-up to the Battle of Rossbach

Dear Readers,

Tomorrow is the 5th of November. The one day a year college students can pretend to be anarchists for a few hours. "Remember, Remember," the saying goes. Well, today, here on Kabinettskriege, I am going to take you to a different 5th of November. Forget the Gunpowder Plot. This 5th of November has much more significance to British history than a few disgruntled Catholics.

At the beginning of November, 1757, England, and the liberties of Englishmen everywhere, were in much greater danger than in 1605. The French had defeated the forces of the English king at the battle of Hastenbeck on the 26th of July, 1757. This led to the surrender of the army which fought for Britain, mostly comprised of Hessian, Hanoverian, and Braunschweiger soldiers. At surrender following the Convention of Kloster-Zeven, Britain had been all but knocked out of the Seven Years' War in Europe. This would allow the French to send more troops to serve in North America, potentially threatening England's overseas colonies.

The English could only hope for their allies on the continent, the Prussians, to somehow pull their European irons out of the fire. And in November 1757, this did not look very likely. The Prussians were reeling from three important defeats. On the 18th of June, 1757, King Frederick II of Prussia's army had been badly defeated at the battle of Kolin. On the 30th of August, a minor Prussian army had been defeated at the battle of Gross-Jägersdorf. And finally, On the 7th of September, the Prussians were worsted in the small battle of Moys.

The defeat at Moys was particularly damaging to Frederick II of Prussia. His most trusted friend, and confidant, Hans Karl von Winterfeldt, had been killed in this skirmish. Winterfeldt was Frederick's chief of staff, and spymaster. But even more importantly, he was Frederick's close personal friend. After being told of Winterfeldt's death, Frederick responded, "Einen Winterfeldt finde ich nie wieder. Er war ein guter Mensch, ein Seelenmensch. Er war mein Freunde." Roughly translated, "I will never find another Winterfeldt. He was a good man, a soulful man. He was my friend." For spiky old Fritz, close personal friendships did not come easy-he would often recall this as one of the greatest blows of the war.

After a year of repeated defeats, the English and the Prussians appeared as if they were about to lose the Seven Years' War.

In early November, Frederick was shadowing a French and Reichsarmee, which significantly outnumbered his own. Most historians agree that the French and Imperials had an army of between 38,000 to 44,000 men, and Christopher Duffy gives the figure of 44,750. Franz Szabo states without proof that the army had a, "total strength... about 30,000." Even if we accept Szabo's figure, we can generally agree that the French and Imperials had a generous margin of error over the Prussians, which historians agree had 22,000 men.

Ernst Friedrich Rudolf von Barsewisch, a twenty-year-old Fahnen-Cadet (Junior Ensign), recalled his experiences directly before the battle:
"On the 1st of November, near Halle, an Imperial Corps burned 200 Ducats, plundered different locations during the night, and broke a bridge over the river Saale on the 2nd. On this day, we constructed three bridges over the Saale. The 3rd (of November) brought us to pass by Merseburg on the Saale, and we moved one mile passed Merseburg to Braunsdorf, and camped there. We marched three miles. Here, we stood close to the combined French and Reichsarmee force, so that our Advanced-Guard attacked and skirmished with their outposts.  During this night, His Majesty the King reconnoitered the enemy camp. They were met with a violent cannonade. On the Morning of the 4th of November,  the army broke up, and his Majesty the King was minded to attack the enemy with his cavalry and the left wing of the army. But because the enemy army past with their flank in sight, the enemy in four detachments, in such a way that opened the camp, that the cavalry camped behind the infantry in a valley, meanwhile, constantly the Hussars and the Freibattalions  skirmished with the enemy. The headquarters was near Rossbach."

The battle that followed, on the 5th of November, would change the balance of power in Europe, and North America. Tune in tomorrow, to see how the epic battle on this 5th of November occurred, and how it changed western history.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

If you liked this post, let me know in the comments below! Feel free to follow the blog. Its free, and lets me know that you enjoy what I'm doing-basically the only reason I write this thing.