Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Kabinettskriege: The Year in Review

Old Fritz introducing Potatoes in Prussia
Dear Reader,

It must seem as though I've been horribly neglectful in the past 6 months. I've returned home to Erie, PA, to be with my family for the holidays. I am very grateful for my employment at Indiana Wesleyan, and my applications for Ph.D programs continue apace. During Spring semester, I will teach a course on Warfare and Society in the Atlantic World from 1500-1871. This course will include an interactive learning exercise, in which the students play the roles of policy makers during European Seven Years War. Expect to see updates on this course in the coming months.

Over the past year, a number of debates occurred within the 18th century reenacting community. A group of individual in the Midwestern United States are forming Prussian Regiment von Itzenplitz. This year saw tensions between mainstream and progressive reenactors come to a head, saw a number of progressive reenactors split off from their parent units. This year will see the 32nd annual meeting of the Seven Years War Association, on the 27th and 28th of March, 2015.

This year, I will attempt to get back to core substance of this blog, posts about the historical content of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But more importantly- what are you interested in hearing? Are there any topics which interest you as readers, and would like to me to delve into?

Thanks for Reading, and Merry Christmas

Alex Burns

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review-Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations from 1600 to 1871

Dear Reader,

Today, I am going to briefly review the book, Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations from 1600-1871, edited by Robert Doughty and Ira Gruber. I am considering this text for my "War and Culture in the Atlantic World" class in the spring semester.  This book is the first volume of a two part series covering warfare from 1600 to the present, this volume covers all of what we would consider the Kabinettskriege period, and a bit more besides. The book is divided into three parts: 1600-1783, 1783-1815, and 1815-1871.

The book has many fine features- including frequent maps, so important to the study of military history. Beginning with the, "Military Revolution" under Gustavus II Adolph of Sweden, the authors take the story all the way through to the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The coverage of topics and themes is quite broad- strategy, particularly the logistics of war, are given a large place in the narrative.

However, there are a few complaints as well. Social military history- attempting to understanding the life patterns of soldiers, plays a rather minor role in the overall story. In addition, nearly the entire third part of the book is spent on the history of the American Civil War, which is not entirely surprising when all of the authors come from American universities. Sadly, western military interaction with non-Europeans is not considered in any detail.

Overall, this is a good book for a undergraduate survey of the military history of this period. Professors may wish to supplement it with Jeremy Black's Warfare in the Eighteenth Century, if the class is supposed to cover both western and non-western warfare.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Defense of Progressive Reenacting

Dear Readers,

It was a busy weekend in American Revolutionary War reenacting circles. Whether you are a member of the BAR, BB, CL or, NWTA, the fact of the matter is that drama is unfolding in the reenactor world. I am personally aware of two units splitting apart, over some aspect of the division between progressive and mainstream reenactors. Yesterday, this article appeared, criticizing a minority of progressive reenactors for bullying mainstreamers. So, from the perspective of a professional historian, I would like to give a defense of the progressive moment.

First of all, what is a progressive reenactor? You will often face various straw men in the search for the progressive. The first is the stitch counter- a reenactor who sews all their own clothing by hand, and aggressively encourages all around them to do the same. The next is the campaigner, who sleeps out on the ground at every event, and looks down on all of those who fail to follow suit. The third is the misogynist, who actively opposes women in a military role at reenactments.

The purpose of this post is to make the following four contentions. First: reenacting is a hobby, but one with a serious duty to honor the past. Second: a progressive is not any of the straw men presented above, but rather, anyone who makes an effort to improve their historical impression consistently. Third: individuals of any income, gender, or knowledge base can meet with the above definition of progressive. Four: despite the potential to ruffle feathers, progressivism is undoubtedly a GOOD thing.

All hobbies have barriers to entry. In order to kayak you must own a kayak, or borrow from someone who does. In order to paintball you must have a gun, protective equipment, and paintballs. Reenacting is the same way. You must be willing to invest to some degree, or find a generous unit with unlimited loaner equipment.  However, reenacting has another, very important barrier to entry.

As a historical professional, I feel reenacting has an additional barrier to entry: you must be willing to honor the past. In my opinion, talking on a cellphone in front of the public at a reenactment dishonors the past. Being unwilling to break from a first person impression when members of the public are clearly confused also dishonors the past. Wearing white sneakers at an event dishonors the past. In the same way, angrily confronting said sneaker-wearer and driving them out of the hobby as a result also dishonors the past. ALL reenactors have a duty to read and learn, not just the history of their particular unit, but how that history fits within the story of the period as a whole. This is part of honoring the past, and a barrier to entry in reenacting.

A very wise reenactor once indicated to me that there are levels of being progressive. Not everyone is going to be a stitch counter-campaigner. Being progressive is not a set standard of requirements, it is a state of mind- a constant search for further historical accuracy. At a recent event, a unit I am a part of went to battle in full kit, and grounded non-essential kit in front of the public, showing the public an often overlooked aspect of combat in the American Revolutionary War. Many members of the unit were not in hand sewn kit- but it didn't matter- that was a progressive moment for the unit. Another easy way to demonstrate historical accuracy on the battlefield is to represent the breakdown of fire-control. Start a battle firing crisp volleys, and devolve to independent fire as the battle wears on. A willingness to improve, rather than a gold standard, should be the benchmark for progressivism.

A frequent objection to progressives is the cost of high-quality materials associated with progressive kits. Not everyone can afford Kochan and Phillips broadcloth for their uniforms, nor should they. Not everyone has the time to hand sew all of their kit, nor should they. I would rather see a well-fitted coat made of Woolrich cloth with the inside seams machine sewn than a poorly-fitted hand sewn coat made of Kochan and Phillips. If you are on a budget, but want a high quality kit, talk to those around you who sew. Many reenactors are happy to come alongside new members on a budget. In addition, a large portion of the reenactors I spend the most time around are still in school- no excess of money there. However, I often find that those with little excess cash are the most motivated to construct good quality kit. And, at least in my opinion, construction of good quality kit is a way of honoring the past.

Women desiring to portray soldiers often face objection from progressive reenactors. As someone self-identifying as a progressive, I would rather see a female soldier in well-fitted kit than a man swimming in a grossly oversized regimental. However,  I believe that female reenactors portraying soldiers have a duty to attempt to hide their gender. Many women (including my girlfriend) practice the art of hiding their gender while in the ranks. Along with having a well-fitted kit, this is a way of honoring the past.

Some progressives have the potential to be abrasive. I would encourage them to tone it down. However despite the possibility of hurting feelings, I contend that progressivism is definitely a good thing, and that it should continue to forge ahead. As reenactors, we have a duty to honor the past. While we should also attempt to have a good time, honoring the past should be ever present. And, at least in my mind, honoring the past and having fun seems to be a largely overlapping Venn diagram.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tradition and Revisionism in Historical Hobbies and Professions

The 40th of Foot Light Company at Cliveden- Photo by Suzanne Shaw
History is always changing. In many ways, the past is a moving target- and historians always write with the lens of their own time. In the last fifty years, this has led to a pushback against so-called, "revisionist" historians. The general public often fears that historians try to, "change the past," in order to fit a modern political agenda. However, on the whole, this fear grows out of a misunderstanding of the job of the historian. The task of the historian is not the simple recitation of facts about history, but advancing our knowledge of the past. Thus, to call a historian a "revisionist" is not an insult, but a great compliment. If a historian has managed to revise how the general population looks at the past, they are fulfilling their purpose. However, that revisionism often meets with pushback, and many individuals resist thinking about the past in new ways. "Established wisdom," or "tradition," often views revisionist thinking with extreme skepticism. This occurs within the debates of historians at a professional level, but is also present in historical hobbies.

The picture above depicts the 40th regiment of Foot light company, a "progressive" reenacting unit depicting British soldiers in the American War of Independence. It is rather humorous to me that the term "progressives," used so pejoratively in historiographical debates, is used to describe a particular type of, "hardcore," or "serious" reenactor. The picture shows them doing controversial things in reenacting circles: giving fire while lying down, not arrayed in closed ranks, etc.  While many individuals have known that the British army did not fight in the way it was depicted so often in Hollywood films, this knowledge has become more widespread with the publication of Matthew H. Spring's book, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only. The guys in the 40th Regiment have obviously done their reading.

This text, in every sense of the word, is a work of revisionist history. Spring, "with the deftness and surety of a bayonet stroke," in the words of a particularly effusive reviewer, has killed the notion that the British army fought in rigid lines during the American Revolution. Despite this fact, few wargamers, reenactors, or historians have updated their information to reflect this incredible work of scholarship.

Part of this failure is ignorance- not everyone has read, or been convinced, by this book. However, part of this failure is "tradition," the sort of tradition which got the Catholic Church into trouble in the 1500s. Many reenactors, wargamers and historians have simply not updated their way of thinking about the British army because they been thinking the same way for 30 years. This sort of behavior reflects a lack of respect for history, and in my opinion, is inexcusable. A third part of this failure to update comes from lack of finances- not everyone can afford to make the changes required when new research is done on uniforms in reenacting, or purchase a new rulebook in wargaming. However, those who cannot afford change, but are aware of new ideas, are in a much better position to serve history well.

To return to the beginning- ideas about the past are constantly changing. Dr. Christopher Duffy rewrote his groundbreaking work on the Prussian army in the 1990s, because new evidence had come to light, evidence which led him to different conclusions. That is one of the great things about history- it is in a constant state of motion, and it requires thorough, ongoing research and reading to have an adequate understanding of the past.

So- whether you are a reenactor or a wargamer, a historian or an undergraduate student, a "progressive" or a "mainstreamer": my admonition is the same. I echo Augustine in saying: take up and read.

And in the interest of helping you with that goal, I am going to list the books which have been most instructive for me in becoming a journeyman student of Kabinettskriege era warfare.

Military Experience in the Age of Reason by Christopher Duffy

Redcoats by Richard Holmes

With Zeal and With Bayonets Only by Matthew H. Spring

Russia's Military Way to the West by Christopher Duffy

The Battle that Shook Europe by Peter Englund

A Revolutionary People at War by Charles Royster

Fire and Stone by Christopher Duffy

War under Heaven by Gregory Evans Dowd

The Capture of Louisbourg, 1758 by Hugh Boscawen

I highly recommend them to you.

Thanks for Reading!

Alex Burns

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fort Niagara 2014

Dear Readers,

After a long absence, I am posting some updates- here is a group of photos related to the Fort Niagara Event, "Soldiers of the Revolution," on August 2nd and 3rd 2014.


Room where the treaty of 1764 was signed by Sir William Johnson

A barrel with the markings of the King's Regiment

The outwork: a Ravelin
One of the blockhouses built after the Seven Years' War

Model of Niagara showing the Fort in 1780

 The British line of battle at Fort Niagara

A group of reenactors portraying the King's 8th Regiment of Foot, the garrison of Fort Niagara during the American Revolution

Summer and Fall 2014

Dear Reader,

Someone very close to me pointed out recently that my blog appeared to be dead. As a result, I have decided to give you all an update as to my whereabouts over the past few months. Fear not, Kabinettskriege will continue. The update takes the form of a photo journal.

The Society of the Cincinnati

In late August, I was fortunate enough to travel in order to research at the Society of the Cincinnati Library.

Metro Exit near the Society of the Cincinnati Library

Central Reading Room

My faithful friend: the mircofilm reader.

An orderly book from the Sullivan Campaign

Into the Stacks

The Anderson House

George Washington Statuary

 Reenactor Photos

Fall is a primary season for reenacting, and I was able to get pictures at a number of events.


As many of you are aware, I have obtained a one-year visiting professor position at Indiana Wesleyan University.

 Yorktown Battlefield Photos

American Siege Lines at Yorktown

View towards British Lines, Yorktown

View back towards French Battery

Remains of Redoubt 10

Panorama of Redoubt #9

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns