About Don N. Hagist
Don N. Hagist, editor of Journal of the American Revolution, is an independent researcher specializing in the demographics and material culture of the British Army in the American Revolution. He maintains a blog about British common soldiers and has published a number of articles in academic journals. His books includeThe Revolution’s Last Men: the Soldiers Behind the Photographs (Westholme Publishing, 2015), British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012), A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution (Ballindalloch Press, 2004),General Orders: Rhode Island (Heritage Books, 2001) and Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls (Ballindalloch Press, 2008). Don works as an engineering consultant in Rhode Island, and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists.
What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?
As early as grade school I enjoyed reading about military history, particularly autobiographies of aviators. When I was a young teenager, a close friend joined a local reenactment group and brought me into it too. That experience made me want to learn about the people in the war, and I was particularly drawn to the British side because it was an established, professional army – bright uniforms, sophisticated procedures, and whatnot. But there wasn’t much written material focused on the British army, and what I could find often didn’t make sense. For example, one source would tell me that discipline was brutal, but another would tell me that soldiers were fiercely loyal. I started seeking primary sources to help reconcile the conflicting information. The research soon became more interesting than the reenacting (although, by the time I was twenty I’d formed my own reenacting group, the 22nd Regiment of Foot, which is still active today). Research gradually let to writing, first articles and then books, to present factual material drawn directly from primary sources.
What makes your approach to history different than others?
I’m very quantitative. When someone writes that “most” people were thus-and-such, I want to know whether “most” means fifty-five percent or ninety-five percent. That makes a big difference. I work as an engineering consultant in the design of new products, which makes me oriented towards data collection and measurement. I gather facts, then try to base my historical writing as strictly as possible on those facts, with enough citation that anyone who wants to can find the same information and draw their own conclusions. I avoid using statistics when they’re not meaningful – for example, basing a percentage on a small data sample or presenting an average when the data doesn’t conform to a standard distribution. Many historians base conclusions on far too little data, or do poor quantitative analysis when they do have enough data.
What historians or books have most influenced your work?
When I started writing, I took a very technical and flat approach, trying to present facts in a precise way with great accuracy but no style. I didn’t think that non-fiction writing could be stylistically engaging and still be credible. Then I read a book about soldiers in World War II by Stephen Ambrose (it wasn’t Band of Brothers; I’ve forgotten which it was), and discovered that history based on first-hand accounts could be presented in a creative, lively manner. This was a great revelation and completely changed my approach and writing style. Although Ambrose’s research has come under some criticism, his way of making factual information highly readable was an enormous influence.
What is your “go to” research resource?
I rely almost exclusively on primary sources, the majority of which remain unpublished. I spend a lot of time at the British National Archives in Kew, a suburb of London. That repository holds the muster rolls of British regiments, which give me names of individual soldiers. They also have pension records that provide demographic data, War Office correspondence and paperwork that contains all manner technical data and personal vignettes, and innumerable other sources. There’s a great deal of underutilized information there. Domestically, the David Library of the American Revolution holds a remarkable amount of material from the United States and Great Britain, much of it on microfilm, and is the other place I frequent. A mountain of photocopies and photographs of documents from those places and others allow me to do much of my research at home. It certainly helps to have a network of other researchers to ask questions of; sharing information is the very best thing to do.
What books about the American Revolution do you most often recommend?
That’s a tricky question for me because I don’t use books very much unless they’re published primary sources. And yet, most people who want a recommendation don’t want to read some officer’s diary or an army orderly book, they want a nice concise history of the entire war that won’t put them to sleep or lead them astray. I’m know there are some great choices, but I haven’t read them myself!
What other hobbies and interests do you enjoy?
If I wasn’t writing about the American Revolution, I’d be writing about aviation history. I’ve always loved airplanes; I’ve been flying since I was a teenager, and spend a lot of time at aviation museums and airshows. I also love the comics that appear in newspapers and magazines, so I write for some syndicated and freelance cartoonists. And I play a lot of soccer. The stuff I loved when I was a kid is still the same stuff I love being involved with now.
What new research projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a social history of British Soldiers in the American Revolution. This is the book that I’ve wanted to write for a long time, and I finally have the go-ahead to do it. Remember the decades of research that I mentioned? My goal is to synthesize it into the finest book on the subject that there’s ever been. But it’ll take a while to go back through all that data, organize it, analyze it, and then write it in way that both avid historians and casual readers will enjoy. I’ve set a very aggressive goal of completing the manuscript by the end of 2016.
Why is the Journal of the American Revolution important to you?
As a reader, it keeps me informed about aspects of the conflict that I might otherwise not think about given the narrow focus of my own work, both the broad political affairs and the small local events. The Journal makes these things accessible in small doses that don’t take time away from my research. As a contributor, it allows me to present interesting material to a wide audience quickly, and provides a forum to write about small episodes that are very engaging but that don’t always have a place in longer-form venues. As an editor, it brings me into contact with a some of the most respected names in the field, and it’s quite an honor to be able to interact with them.
Is there an article or subject area that you would like to see appear in the Journal of the American Revolution?
I like personal stories the best. When someone manages to pull together bits of information from disparate sources and tell the story of an individual’s small contribution to a large series of events, it fascinates me. If we present stories about people, history will always be interesting.
Great interview Don!
Don – I loved your interview, as I’m sure “most” people would. I had no idea you were originally inspired by Steven Ambrose. Found out some other great multi-faceted things about you that I never knew, as well.
I look forward to buying that synthesis of decades of research book you’re writing now. More so, who could ever edit it to say you made an error on a fact? You’d be the expert they would call. I rest my case. Again, a great contributor close-up on you!