Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Second Front of the Revolutionary War

If you read military histories of the revolutionary war, the focus tends to be on the campaigns against the British, and you might conclude that most tribes took the British side but that their contribution was limited to the Great Lakes region.


However, Ray Raphael’s The American Revolution. A People’s History opened my eyes to the varied reaction of Native Americans to the war. Difficult choices were made from New England down to Florida. And fundamentally, most tribes were trying to stay out of the war, which they didn’t consider as their own.

Yet, few tribes managed to avoid the conflict. The Abenakis along the border with Canada managed to keep both sides at arms length by taking it slow and occasionally switching allegiance. Although this gave them a reputation for unreliability on both sides of the border, in this way they kept losses low.

Likewise the Chickasaw, although friendly to the British, managed to stay out of the fray because they weren’t in the front line. Only when the Americans built a fortress on their borders did they take action and drove off the garrison.

The fate of the Iroquois, the once mighty confederacy, was possibly the most tragic. Bound to the British after 1763 they accepted an American offer of neutrality in 1775 and avoided conflict until 1777. But then the confederacy fell apart with the Oneidas and Tuscaroras siding with the rebels and the other tribes with the British.

They fought each other as auxiliaries of their allies at the bloody battles of Oriskany and Wyoming. The punitive expedition by general Sullivan’s continentals through the Iroquois heartlands in 1779 destroyed the fabric of the tribes which then became totally dependent on British support. At the end of the war, they retreated to Canada.



The Ohio tribes, such as the Delaware, Mingo and Shawnee, also inexorably got drawn into the conflict. In 1777 violent incidents escalated and by 1778 raiding terrorised the settlements in the region. In 1781 a large punitive expedition laid the Native American towns to waste, bringing the tribes to heel.

The Cherokee honoured their ties to British and attacked in 1776. However, as there was no British threat in the southern states at the time, the militias from four states were available to stage a punitive expedition, destroying many Cherokee towns and crops. Although the majority of the tribe, forced by hunger, accepted a humiliating peace, part of the tribe split off and migrated west.

There were a few tribes that sided with the rebels from the start, most notably the Catawbas in the Carolinas. Their contribution to the cause was fully recognised by the Americans but they became marginalised nevertheless and seem to have disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.


The Seminoles even seem to have prospered as a result of the war. Living in Spanish territory, they were not being targeted directly themselves. But more importantly, they welcomed many new members of the tribe by accepting black runaway slaves.

This gives me the impression that there was in fact an active second front on the western border of the United States, tying up valuable manpower. You might imagine that if the British had been able to coordinate their actions better with those of the Native Americans, it could have had better results than it did now. On the other hand, it is unlikely to have swung the war in British favour, thus leaving the loyal tribes as high and dry after the war as they were historically.

Given the desperate state of the British cause and the long standing distrust between Native Americans and settlers, no tribe in the east could escape from the conflict and although some managed to limit the damage, most lost many warriors and were forced to cede land in the end.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Blog recommendation: How to kill a rational peasant

Just a notice that Brian Train put a very interesting post on his blog. It brings together three strands of interest for me: theories about rational peasants that I encountered during my PhD research, Adam Curtis BBC blog, one of the most fascinating documentary makers I've come across and Brian Train himself, a game designer whose approach and integrity I admire. If you are interested in counterinsurgency, the war in Vietnam, or even just the small part that gaming played in it, then this is a must-read/view


Monday, 28 November 2016

Paint it black

Quite some time since I last picked up the paintbrush, but I cleared up some space on a table so I can leave it where it is and have a good lamp close by.


Started and finished a bunch of riflemen and black militia members. The ones in the long coats would probably end up with northern units. The ones in shirt sleeves in the south.

In the former case they probably fought on the American side, where manpower shortage saw the enlistment of quite a few free blacks and slaves, who did so because this meant a job and a chance to be freed after service. Didn't always work out that way apparently according to Ray Raphael's brilliant The American Revolution. A People's History.

Raphael also shows how in the latter case, tens of thousands of southern slaves escaped from the plantations to the freedom promised them by the British. They joined the British and loyalist units, or accompanied them as servants. Many died of hunger and disease and by the time of the British retreat, they were often left to their own devices.

Jim Piecuch, in his Cavalry of the American Revolution devotes an article to the Black Dragoons, a cavalry unit composed of and led by escaped slaves in South Carolina. They appear to have performed to the satisfaction of the British, but their existence enraged the white planters in the south, making it less likely that they would accept a return of British rule.

As far as  I am concerned, A People's History is an indispensable companion to the military history of the American revolution. Apart from showing how blacks could end up fighting on both sides, there's good stuff on the role of women, native Americans, Loyalists and common American males sympathetic to the revolution. It shows how this war affected them, but also, how they tried to make the best of it, or even turn it to their advantage.

I'll come back to this book, because it was an eye opener for me on the vastly different experiences of native American tribes. But worth every penny and widely available in second hand.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

A first taste of the people

'Wird Sind Das Volk' was the rallying cry of the protests that heralded the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the German Democratic Republic. In 1990 it was amalgamated into the Federal Republic of Germany, until then widely known as Western Germany.


The game by the same name tackles the economic and political struggle between the two Germanies and it does so exceedingly well. Using the card driven mechanisms popularised by Hannibal, Paths of Glory and Twilight Struggle, the game is mostly a struggle between an embattled communist economy and a capitalist powerhouse. Once the contrast between western luxuries and eastern austerity becomes too big, the DDR will collapse in protest.

But there are twists. The West is not without its own problems and protests will erupt there too.

As in a good card driven game, players fret about which card to play and how to use it. Each turn a player picks a card and decides whether to use it for the event or the economic points. The former will pull several levers at once (the inflow of foreign currency to the DDR, international prestige, socialist party cadres, protests, economic boom and bust), and the economic points can be spent on building infrastructure, increasing the standard of living or removing protesters.

And the fun part in a card driven game based on the recent past is thinking whether you can remember the historical events on the cards.


I like how some of the cards are a double edged sword, pushing you up one track and down another. Sometimes it's better to pick the card that can harm you if picked by your opponent, sometimes you have the luxury of choosing between several favourable cards. But luckily the best short term option is pretty clear in most cases, preventing too much analysis paralysis.

In my maiden game, last Tuesday, I left a weak spot that was exploited mercilessly by my opponent. Had I immediately understood the gravity of the situation I might have saved it, but I didn't see how. That left me on the back foot that left the DDR able to comfortably weather the storms of the 1980s, even if the Wall did fall.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Another bunch of books

Having been gifted a few book coupons, I ordered a few books off my wishlist. The book on the Grande Armée in Germany has been on the list for over a year. Based on numerous first hand accounts and archives I'm interested in the way the French behaved as an occupation force, but also on it's relations with the population.


And with the coming of Project 217 (the as yet still mysterious project about ancient warfare around 217 BC), I decided to finally order the 3rd edition of the De Bellis Antiquitatis rules for ancient warfare. I still think that it is a very innovative rule set that regretfully developed in the wrong direction.

If I return to ancients wargaming, it will be in 6mm using DBA. I just don't have the time for painting another large army and learning a complicated tactical rule set that feels more like recreating Napoleonic warfare than ancient.

And it was just a bit to easy to just add the newest edition of Hordes of the Things, the fantasy version of DBA. By the way check out this fantastic blog that shows how incredibly creative people can be in designing their HotT armies. Or have a look at the HotT facebook group. Pure joy.

I had also ordered a book on maroons in North America, after reading a very interesting article on the maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia.

And as I went to pick that up, I just happened to look at the new Ospreys just in and I was kind of spineless.The campaign book on the Battle of the Thames is a kind of a no-brainer since it covers the Indian part of the War of 1812.

I am also quite fond of the work of Sean McLachlan, who does thorough historical research and occasionally combines it with interesting fiction. I was happy to pick up his combat series instalment on the Apache warrior vs US cavalryman. An interesting contest and it seems McLachlan has done a good job on both sides.

That said, the third booklet will be the proof on how the combat series is doing because King's African Rifles vs Schutztruppe Soldier might expose the weaknesses of the series by pitting two similar troop types against each other, but might also show interesting differences in their deployment by their colonial masters. Anyway, a much understudied topic in itself.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Last post before the AWI battle

(AWI project retrospective, part 9)

I wrote this post at the end of an evening where I had based my prospective army for the big battle. It’s the worst job I can think of in preparing a wargaming army. I resent it like nothing else. And yet, this meant that I was about to finish the job. There was this relaxed sense that I would make this deadline.


And not just make it. Sunday morning sun rising, I had ready all four regiments of Smallwood’s brigade present at the battle of Camden. And more: woodland Indians, Stockbridge Indians and surplus militia. That was far beyond what I had thought to achieve when starting on this journey almost a year before. I even slipped in painting three Dark Age houses.


That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a pile of pewter and plastic left waiting for me still. Some last Indians and militia, several units of British and loyalist troops and the 2nd South Carolina regiment. But that was all beyond the task I had set myself, so no worries there. I was just proud of my achievement irrespective of the outcome of the game.

In further developments in preparation for the big day, I did manage another test game of Land of the Free. This was very useful. Needless to say I got my behind handed to me by Patrick. SO I decided to read through the rules again and again, because I kept finding rules I’d overlooked or misinterpreted.


Apart from the painting challenge and the rules, and in direct contradiction to my intentions at the start, this has turned into a reading project as well. Over a dozen Ospreys somehow came into my possession, and a further dozen paper and digital books on the AWI. And somehow I managed to read most of them.

I was first infatuated with the militia side of the war; then the Indian conflict grabbed my attention. Four of the books I bought on my summer holiday to the UK dug deeper into the subject. I discovered the Black Dragoons of South Carolina, and how choosing to become a loyalist sometimes depended more on the side that the people you hated chose, than on your ideology.


But the crown on my reading spree has been Barbarians & Brothers by Wayne Lee, a brilliant book weaving together the civil and colonial wars in England, Ireland and North America from the 16th to the 19th century. Lee explains how conflicts between civilians and between cultures turned much more violent than between regulars. This clash of regular soldiers, warriors and citizens in these centuries, and more specifically in the AWI, has proved a fascinating discovery that I had not expected a year ago.

That legacy will endure.

This blog was first published on the Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy blog on August 23rd 2016

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Israel Divided. Or Not?

Last weekend I was struck with a heavy bout of influenza which caused me to cancel a few appointments. It gave me some extra time to read and I decided to finish off Jona Lendering’s Israel Verdeeld (or Israel Divided).


The history of Israel and Jewish religion in the age of Jesus tickled memories of my past, growing up in the Dutch reformed church, while I follow Jona Lendering’s blog on ancient history and had enjoyed one of his previous books.

One of the first points to tackle is of course that Lendering assumes that Jesus actually did exist. Given that there are several independent, non-biblical sources that confirm his existence, I think that’s a fair point. But as Lendering argues, who he was and what he preached, is very hard to reconstruct because of the limits of the sources.

And this is where Lendering comes into his own as he explains how we can weigh the evidence, for example by rejecting facts that are only mentioned in one source, or which might have been added in later versions. Similar discussions pop up all over the book, whether discussing the actual theological differences between Jewish substreams or the power of priestly dynasties.

Israel in the time of Jesus

Politically the period was determined by the slow movement from the Seleucid to the Roman sphere of influence, until it became a Roman province during Jesus’ lifetime. At the same time, Jewish political and religious elites lost legitimacy as they got caught up in the power struggle and sometimes ended up on the losing side. Warfare also increased the tax pressure.

Lendering also describes how Jewish religion was divided over the interpretation of the halacha, the rules to live life. There were differences of opinion on such diverse topics as which texts were relevant (just the core books of the bible, or also the books of the prophets, and non-bible traditions?), on the relationship towards non-Jews, the afterlife and the limits to free will. There is ample proof of a lively debate that seems to have resonated deeply with those involved.

But the most important thing to take away is that fundamentally all Jews adhered to the sacrifice in the great temple of Jerusalem, and large parts of the halacha were devoted to the correct performance of the sacrifice.

A part that doesn’t seem so important is that of messianism. There wasn’t a feeling of the end of time and of the coming of the messiah, and apparently was not discussed much. Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t several people claiming to be the messiah before and after Jesus. But the messianist message in combination with an end of time revelation was typical of the Jesus’ strand of Jewish religion.

And this is what Lendering is quite clear on: Jesus was a Jew, who talked about issues that were relevant to the Jews of his age (mostly about the halachic rules) and in ways that they would recognise. The rejection of the halacha was a later development in Christianity.

Christianity as a separate religion

Essentially, the legacy that Jesus left fitted as well within Jewish religion as any of the other branches. Lendering shows that the parting of the ways was a protracted affair and that many Christians kept to the halacha (or a special variant for those that hadn’t been born as Jews) and visited Jewish temples hundreds of years later.

What had changed fundamentally by then, was the Jewish religion. The destruction of the great temple (during the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD) meant that it could no longer be organized around the sacrifice. Also, several religious branches seem to have disappeared after 70 AD, and the Farizee branch transformed into the Rabbinic brand of Jewish religion that we recognize today.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD both Jewish and Christian both started to codify their dogmas and select which holy books were relevant or not. The situation where different interpretations of the same religion could live side by side was slowly disappearing. The process of separation was reinforced by Roman taxation of Jews, which forced Christians to choose. By the time Christianity had become the state religion of the Empire the divide had become deep, and religious anti-Semitism was creeping into the Catholic Church.

Lendering’s mission

Lendering succeeds admirably in drawing these developments in an understandable way, while staying true to the sources. But on a more fundamental level, the book doesn’t succeed. Lendering has spoken out repeatedly that ancient history (and archeology) should be made accessible to a broader public.

But as far as I am concerned the book is not easily accessible to a broader public. Lendering’s insistence to explain his method in detail on every occasion get’s tiring after some time. Even an interested reader like me dropped the book two thirds in, and left it for a couple of months. I might never have picked it up again.

For some reason I didn’t have the same problem with At the Edge of the World, the book that Lendering wrote together with Arjen Bosman on the Roman Empire in the Low Countries. I can’t lay my finger on what exactly is the difference between the two books, but perhaps Lendering on his own takes it all just a bit too serious.

To capture the imagination of readers, solid methods and arguments are not enough. A delicate balance needs to be struck between scientific rigour and readability. That is incredibly hard to do, and there's no dishonour in failing. On the contrary, Lendering should be commended for trying and his example should be followed.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Don’t go watching Hacksaw Ridge

It is a really bad movie. The re is an overload of romantic and war movie clichés, and the acting is mediocre. The main character is trying so hard to be Forrest Gump, it's almost endearing. Agent Smith/Tick is the single exception, making a convincing drunkard. 


The first half of the movie only has boy meets girl plus boy has father issues. That makes a loooong wait for combat footage, if that’s what you came for.


But especially don’t go if you are looking for a war movie. Yes, the latter half includes quite some imagery of war, and I'm sure weapons and equipment are historical and suitably dirty. But I don’t get the feeling it has any relation to warfare on Okinawa in 1945. 

It’s more allegorical of how horrible war can be. And how American heroes can look righteously into the camera. More care has been taken of aesthetics than of reconstructing reality (and of course a movie doesn't have to; but then again, I don't have to like it). But if you want to see operating bullet ejection mechanisms in close up, this is your movie.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Seeing the elephant

(AWI project retrospective, part 8)

The painting progress was quite satisfactory in May and June. I finished a small group of Stockbridge Indians (which were allied to the rebels) and a large group of Woodland Indians. I also managed to construct a few wooden cabins and a load of wicket fences.


This happily coincided with an occasion for all my painted units to see the elephant. In May we played a game of Land of the Free with some of the participants in the AWI project. As we were all novices to the set, Jasper gave us an introduction to the rules. That helped a lot; I now at least had a basic grasp of the mechanics.


There is ample appreciation in LotF for the problems of command and control, and I think the activation system works fine. Movement and fire are pretty standard. The charge mechanism, in combination with the morale rules, as so often seems to be the Achilles heel and it will take some effort to master. We didn’t the advanced rules at the time, so that Indians operated the same as light infantry. No need to say that I was happy to move on to advanced rules as soon as possible!

The game itself turned out in our favour, largely due good initial positioning, good use of cavalry and some lucky dice rolls. I was able to concentrate my regulars and militia before the enemy regulars could reach the battlefield. The cavalry was used a bit as a Napoleonic shock force, which seems anachronistic, but worked because it operated on the flanks. And lucky dice rolls… well, Napoleon had something to say about that.


My troops generally acquitted themselves well. The Continentals, positioned at the anchor of my line, took a serious pounding but stayed in the field and dealt out in equal measure. The militia was tentative but provided valuable support. The delicate Stockbridge group got severely punished for its small but crucial contribution, and the Indians didn’t get into the fight.

All in all a good first impression, that would need a few more test games to play smoothly in August. There was still the uniformed militia and some officers to finish before then as well, but was getting confident that these would be ready well in time. Something I hadn’t expected to say when I started out in December!

This blog was first published on the Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy blog on June 16th 2016

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Model Militia

(AWI project retrospective, part 7)

Incredibly, in April managed to finish a big unit of Continental infantry! Less busy-ness at work and more determination saw me accelerate, and I even picked up the next batch of uniformed militia. Enrolling militia into Continental units was a regular feature in the South after the bulk of the Continental units there had surrendered after the siege of Charleston in May 1780.


Slowly running out of militia to paint, I wished to round off my triptych on the subject, and the best way was to look at the legacy the militia system left. Because as somebody who has a footing in Napoleonic history, the American militia first appeared as an icon that others tried to emulate.

Before the Age of Revolutions, the European battlefield had been dominated by mercenaries. These soldiers served for money, not to protect their homes or their rights. In most cases they were recruited from the lowest classes of society and kept in place by brutal discipline. Of course, remnants of the old chivalric way of war remained among the officer class, but it had been subjected to the demands of the early modern state.

That changed in the late 18th century. With closer identification of the individual to his fatherland, the preferred type of soldier to serve the nation shifted from the professional soldier to the armed citizen motivated by love for his country and ideals. Surely the latter would be more committed to carry the struggle to its successful conclusion?

In this light, the use of German troops on the American continent confirmed the revolutionary frame that freedom loving citizens were suppressed by rigid automatons serving a tyranny. French newspapers and commentators were quick to pick up the image of the intrepid citizen soldier, who elected his own officers and made up for his lack of discipline with revolutionary zeal.

As it was, the revolution provided the first test case for the armed citizen in ages, and rightly or wrongly, to European observers it appeared a resounding success. Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill inspired the Dutch Patriots who formed societies practicing drill. However, those Patriots were easily beaten by Prussian regulars in 1787.


The amateur soldier made a comeback during the French Revolution. First, politically motivated volunteers joined the army in 1791 and 1792. When these proved unable to save the revolution, mass employment of conscripts saved the day. And the Batavian Republic, the spiritual heir of the Dutch Patriot movement, again attempted to build on citizen soldiers for the defence of the state.

Eventually, the limitations of volunteer forces were outshone by the success of conscription in mobilising mass armies. And with the increased convergence between nation and state in the 19th century, the intrinsic motivation of the citizen could now also be assumed to inspire professional soldiers. Accepting the dominance of regular armies on the battlefield, by the 20th century revolutionary movements relied mostly on irregular warfare.

The historical question whether the militia was the key to the revolutionary victory has always been about more than just the American revolutionary war. As closely as it was linked to the concept of the nation in arms, the answer could never fail to impact the ideological struggle about which type of army best fits a democratic society.

Over time, the lack of success of citizen armies on a voluntary basis has clouded our view of the militia in the American Revolution. But as we have seen, it was the combination of militia and regulars that ensured the final victory. Neither could succeed alone.

This blog was first published on the Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy blog on April 13th 2016