Contributor Close-up: Christian McBurney

About Christian McBurney

Christian McBurney resides in the Washington, D.C. area and is an independent historian who has authored the recently released Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Other Military and Civilian Leaders (McFarland, 2016). His other Revolutionary War books include Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott (Westholme, 2014) and The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation of the Revolutionary War (Westholme, 2011). For more information on his books, see christianmcburney.com.

What do you take the most pride in with your history writing?

I am most proud of writing on topics that have not previously been covered or are underserved.  I am not going to write another biography on George Washington or another book on the Battle of Trenton.  I want to do something new.  That is how I roll.  I also take pride in primarily relying on original sources.  My Rhode Island Campaign book had more than 1,000 footnotes, almost all from original sources, some of them that I discovered.  This book also has 139 pages of footnotes.  This was done to keep the flow of the narrative in the main text moving and interesting for readers, leaving discussions of sources, more detail, and ambiguities of what really happened, in the footnotes.  Some readers told me they enjoyed reading the notes as much as the main text.

What are your go-to research resources?

I rely on original sources, mostly.  But to get started, I try to read the most authoritative secondary sources.  On the American side, it depends on what the topic is.  If the topic is the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 or the New Jersey theater of war in late 1776 and early 1777, it would be the two books by David Hackett Fischer.  If it is the Battle of Monmouth Court House, it is now Fatal Sunday by Mark Lender and Gary Wheeler Stone. I like works such as these that are carefully done and well footnoted, relying mainly on original sources, but also discussing useful secondary sources.  Of course, for quick reference, I rely on Mark Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.  For Charles Lee, the best biography is still John R. Alden’s Charles Lee:  Traitor or Hero?, published in 1957.  It is amazing the breadth of original sources Alden found and used, in a pre-Internet age.

On the British side, I start with Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America.  Not only does he tell a great story from a fresh British perspective, his research and footnotes are incredibly useful.  I think O’Shaughnessy’s book is the best Revolutionary War book in the last decade.  On the British side, I also rely quite a bit on The American Rebellion, Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-1782, edited by William B. Willcox.

How do you write books so quickly?

I get this question with some frequency.  It is not easy and takes discipline.  I try to make some progress every day.  At least one weekend day, I spend about six hours working.   It is amazing how much progress one can make by getting up early, working steadily and avoiding distractions.  It helps that I no longer pretend to be a golfer and I don’t watch many sports on weekends (unless it is a playoff game!).  It really helps that my terrific wife loves to work in the garden and is a health nut who goes on long runs and bike rides!  (We do a long hike or kayak at least once a weekend, which keeps me from becoming too slothful.)  In addition, I had a big head start.  Before I authored The Rhode Island Campaign, my first Revolutionary War book, I spent six years researching the British occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, from December 1776 to October 1779.  My first draft of this book was about 1,000 pages long.  Of course, no one will read that.  That research was the cornerstone for three of my books:  The Rhode Island Campaign, Kidnapping the Enemy and Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island. It also helps to reside near, and work in, Washington, D.C., where I have easy access to three of the best libraries for research on the Revolutionary War, at the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters, the Society of the Cincinnati headquarters, and the Library of Congress.

What are some of your favorite JAR articles?

I have found JAR articles to be of excellent quality and increasingly useful in my history writing.  In my latest book, Abductions in the American Revolution:  Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders, I relied on the following:  Benjamin Huggins, “Raid Across the Ice: The British Operation to Capture George Washington (Dec. 17, 2013); Greg Brooking, “The Arrest of Georgia’s Royal Governor Sir James Wright” (May 9, 2014); Hershel Parker, “Fanning’s Bloody Sabbath as Traced by Alexander Gray” (May 4, 2015); and Gary Shattuck, “Plotting the ‘Sacricide’ of George Washington” (July 25, 2014).  History writers should definitely take advantage of the wealth of archived stories JAR makes available to them, as well as to all readers.  JAR has definitely become one of the key institutions in promoting interest in the American Revolution.

What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?

I have completed a manuscript, again focusing on Major General Charles Lee, that endlessly fascinating character.  In this proposed book, I take some contrarian views, but they are well supported, I believe.  When I discuss the topic with readers, they seem very interested, so that is encouraging.  I am seeking a publisher for it now.  Before I start my next book, I am looking forward to authoring some articles for the JAR on some new topics.

What Other Hobbies do You Enjoy?

Readers might be interested to know that I founded, and serve as chief editor of, the top history blog in Rhode Island, The Online Review of Rhode Island History at www.smallstatebighistory.com.  We have more than twenty of Rhode Island’s top history writers contributing articles (JAR’s Don N. Hagist submitted an article; we grew up three miles from each other in southern Rhode Island).  I admit I shamelessly copied Todd Andrlik’s JAR concept at www.allthingsliberty.com.  I even had my website developer (my talented son) use it as the primary guide.  What can I say, I am trying to become the Todd Andrlik of Rhode Island!  The site looks terrific and has been pretty successful with about 1,500 page views a month.  I am proud that I authored the four most viewed articles, and six of the top ten.  My favorite one is about a top secret special German POW camp in Rhode Island during World War II that published a newspaper for distribution to the 380,000 German POWs in the U.S., promoting democracy and preparing them to develop a peaceful post-war Germany.

Readers might be amused to know that for fifteen years, at a prior law firm, I captained the Men’s Cooking Team against the Women’s Cooking Team in an annual cook-off contest.  We would cook dishes in seven categories and judges (many of them local chefs) would anonymously rate them and pick the winners.  For the first eight years, the Men’s Team was competitive, but never could win the overall competition.  Once the Men’s Team broke through, the floodgates opened.  The Men’s Team twice won the competition three years in a row.  It was a fun event, with the entire office eating the fruits of the contest before the results were announced.  I won awards every year, except one, when the event was covered by the Washington Post.

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