Thursday, June 10, 2021

Separating Fact from Fiction in Historical Writing: Popular Military History and How to Read It


Dear Reader,

Unlike many academic disciplines, military history, as well as political history and biography, have long contained writing targeted at a non-specialist audience. That is to say, people who are non-specialists (who did not obtain graduate degrees in the field they are writing in) author books targeted to appeal to the broad audience that military history garners. Often, these books are well written, but contain some factual or interpretive errors. So, today, I am setting out to give some brief guidelines that I use when evaluating a book, so that you can use your own best judgement when thinking about claims made by an author, or whether to spend your hard-earned on a book. 

This post is not a screed against writers without Ph.Ds. I have good friends outside the academic world who not only write history, but write history well. John U. Rees, the author of They were Good Soldiers, with Helion and Company, is a perfect example of this type of author. John has spent a lifetime as an amateur (one who works for the love of the subject) historian, and has learned more about the Continental Army of the American War of Independence than any specialist scholar I know. When you read John's work (and John is simply an example, there are many like him) it is clear from the copious quoted citations from original sources, that he has done the necessary footwork in research. 

I am increasingly concerned, however, that non-specialists make it difficult for professional historians to effectively challenge myths. In May of 2019, journalist and award-winning author Rick Atkinson gave a engaging talk at George Washington's Mount Vernon. In a hour of speaking, Atkinson held forth knowledgably on many topics. When he turned to the subject of combat during the American War of Independence, however, he began to falter. Atkinson asserted that, "Unlike modern war, killing is usually intimate, at very close range, face to face, often with the bayonet. That's partly because eighteenth-century muskets were mostly inaccurate beyond fifty yards and usually hopeless beyond one hundred yards."[1] Here, he paraphrases claims made in his book.[2] Readers of this blog will recall the various ways that these myths have been addressed, both here and in the published works of historians like Christopher Duffy. Atkinson then discusses the number of rounds necessary to hit an enemy soldier as evidence, despite the fact that the figure has only increased in modern warfare, despite the obvious increase in weapon accuracy.[3] 

Atkinson's stereotyping regarding eighteenth-century warfare is followed by Patrick K. O'Donnell, in his popular treatment of an elite Maryland regiment the Continental Army, Washington's Immortals. Like Atkinson, O'Donnell has written award-winning books on more recent military conflicts. O'Donnell summarizes infantry combat in the period as follows: 

Technology drove tactics. Because muskets were so inaccurate, troops practiced laying down concentrated fire in large numbers. Soldiers of the time lined up in rows, sometimes eight or ten ranks deep, and fired en masse, meaning that everyone in the front rank wo had a clear line of sight to the opposing side pulled his trigger at the same time. This massed fire improved the odds of hitting the enemy. 

As formidable as they sound, most of these volleys weren't very successful. "It was just possible for a good marksman to hit a man at 100 yards; a volley could be fired with some chance of obtaining hits on a mass of troops at 200 yards, but at 300 yards fire was completely ineffective." [4]  

O'Donnell clearly misleads the reader, as firing lines in the eighteenth-century were ranged between two and four ranks deep, and during the war he is discussing, two was the norm.[5]  

In Washington's Immortals, O'Donnell does not provide a reference for this quotation above. His more recent book, The Indispensables, reproduces this passage almost verbatim, and does source the quote. O'Donnell found this quote, likely in Michael Stephenson's Patriot Battles, a passable secondary work, who in turn, found it in Major General Basil Perronet Hughes 1974 work, Firepower: Weapon Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 163-1850. So, to review, O'Donnell has used a quote in his book, that was quoted in book from 2007, which in turn was quoting original material from 1974. In making strong claims about the accuracy of musketry and the range of firefights, which contradict the more recent scholarly assessments (Duffy, 1987), O'Donnell is fairly far removed from primary sources. 

Now, it might seem that I am picking on Atkinson and O'Donnell, both of whom are far more well-known than I will ever be, and who are the award-winning authors of many books. They are both excellent writers, and many of their books are outstanding. The trouble arises when these authors, who do not have formal historical training, having written many well-received books, begin to think that they can write in all periods of history with equal skill. The casual reader of military picks up these books, often cheaply, in paperback form, and assumes that because the author is well-known, and claims to be a historian, that they have done the necessary research and know what they are talking about. This, naturally, perpetuates myths asserted when non-specialists use older secondary works to frame their perspectives. 

What I hope to do in the remainder of this post, then, is provide a checklist that the casual reader of military history can use to evaluate the abundant works of popular history which they might find at the local bookstore. 

A somewhat worn copy of Dr. Matthew Spring's
With Zeal and With Bayonets Only shows Notes and a Bibliography

1. Survey the Contents. 

A necessary first step for anyone who seeks to judge a book by more than its cover. Open the book to the "table of contents" page. In addition to the listed chapters,  is their an endnote section, or a bibliography, or even a "suggested further readings" section. If the book has all of these things, regardless of who the author is, or who the publishing house might be, it is apparent that the author has at least tried to provide an apparatus for where the reader can evaluate their claims based on evidence. 

The Publication Page (Left) for Dr. Andrew Bamford's 
Sickness, Suffering and the Sword promisingly shows 
a university press affiliation, as well as a recent publication date

2. Look at the Publication Information 

Almost all books have a page, usually opposite of the table of contents, which list of information about the work. Look at this page briefly, with a few things in mind. Where was the book published? If it came out with a university press, you can be fairly certain that the book has undergone a peer-review process, that is, the chapters of the book have been scrubbed the author's personal information, and reviewed by at least one, and often multiple, other historians who specialize in this area. This is not a fool-proof answer for problems, academic historians make mistakes and can be wrong. Secondly, look for when the book was published: books which were published, broadly, after 1960, began to be subjected to much more rigorous scholarly review and quotes and claims are more likely to be footnoted with primary-source evidence. 

In his 1812: March to Moscow, Paul Austin provides a bibliography
and notes,but his quotations are uncited, a potential headache. 

By contrast, in Military Experience of the Age of Reason, 
Christopher Duffy provides large quotes and in-text citations

3. Leaf through a few pages 

Starting from your place at the publication information, select four or five pages, at random, from the main chapters of the book. Examine each page. Are there quotes? Do these quotes have citations? Are their citations for more than just the quoted material? Are there footnotes at the bottom of the page? If there are uncited quotations, that is a potential warning sign. If none of the pages you randomly select have footnotes or in-text citations, that is a potential warning sign. 

In his introduction, Dr. Andrew Bamford is referencing
historiography and giving footnotes: a promising sign. 

4. Engagement with Historiography

At this point, I am sure some of my readers eyes are beginning to glaze over. How well an author connects with historiography, or the collected works of historical literature on a specific topic, can give you valuable information. First of all, referencing other arguments that have been made demonstrates that the author of the book you are holding has read widely, and is not unnecessarily covering ground that other historians have already trod. 

The opening of the Bibliography of Thomas Chavez's 
Spain and the Independence of the United States
shows primary sources that have been subdivided by type

5. Examine the Bibliography or Notes 

In this step, judge how much material the author has collected. Specifically, you should hope to find collections of both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources (quotations from the period being studied) are very valuable. A good work of history will often list these sources separately, and even break down primary sources and secondary sources into sub-categories: Archival Material, Publish Primary Sources, Periodicals, Unpublished Dissertations, etc. 

The author blurb for The British are Coming 

6. Think about the qualifications of the Author

By now, you will already have some sense of the level of expertise that the author has brought to bear on their subject. With that said, it may still be helpful to examine their stated qualifications. Did they go to graduate school for their topic? Have they held a long-term interest in the topic, or have they mostly published in other fields? None of these questions should cause you to dismiss the book out of hand, which is why I place this criteria last: it is probably the least important. 

Armed with this guide, I hope you have the resources necessary to evaluate the quality of your reading material, on whatever your topic may be. Historians of various backgrounds should be able to write their books for a wide audience, but make sure that they are adequately supporting the claims that they make. By finding works which do so, you can better equip yourself for whatever you hope to obtain from your library. 

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Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns


[1] Quote comes from Atkinson's lecture, available on youtube, at 31:00 minutes.

[2] Rick Atkinson, The British are Coming, 62. 


[4] Patrick K. O'Donnell, Washington's Immortals, 29. 

[5] James Scudieri, "The Continentals: A Comparative Analysis of a late eighteenth-century standing Army." Unpublished Dissertation, City University of New York, 1993. 203-204 


  1. Thank you for this post, as a former academic historian (albeit not in the field of military history) this is a topic dear to my heart. One thing I'd be interested in is the difference in quality of popular histories between different topics or fields. I've read a lot on the American Civil War, and the quality of books is in general very high - for example, the publisher Savas Beattie, who dominates the field catering to a non-acedemic audience, seems to have rather good quality control.

    In contrast, I recently started reading on the napoleonic wars, and I have to say that I was disappointed by many of the books, even so-called classics - the amateur historian with strong opinions and little sources seems much more rampant and historiographical debate is more or less absent.

    My theory is that you can make a university career in American Civil War studies (at least in the US), but you can't make one in napoleonic studies (anywhere). So academics are more active and innovative, which seems to produce a "trickle-down effect".

    That's not to say that all popular books on the napoleonic wars are bad, but the ratio between good and bad books is different.

  2. I would also consider who endorses the book on or just inside the cover and be wary of the mutual appreciation historian 'mafia'. But even so the academic has a duty to make their book readable. There is so much well researched yet dull work which leaves the door wide open for popular historians who understand the craft of writing.

  3. Two things: First, in the Napoleonic sector, there have been several recent episodes of made-up quotes, footnotes copied from intermediate secondary sources pretending to be the primary material and packed bibliographies of books the author has never been near. The last has been particularly prevalent among authors writing about Continental Allied subjects, ending with the prolific German author, Herr Derselbe (Mr. Ditto). So, it is not so easy to judge these important issues as you suggest.

  4. Secondly, a lot of very worthy material has been produced by doctoral students on the French during the 1790s recently. Much of it is mind-numbingly detailed and hide-bound by Ruling Theory (let not get started on the rubbish written about the Allies). The original and interesting work has mostly been done by these authors you seek to dismiss as popular yet uneducated.