What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?
For my thirteenth birthday, I was given a history book on the Kings and Queens of England. Like all kids, I was more interested in the pictures than the text. One painting, in particular, fascinated me: The British army attacking Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle. Serried ranks of brilliantly uniformed Grenadiers marching with lockstep discipline defying the carnage all around them. It triggered an almost primitive patriotism in me. However, it also confused me. I remember asking my dad “how did we lose?” His reply? “A determined conviction is worth more than a thousand muskets.” Though over time I came to notice numerous inaccuracies with the painting, I have never found fault with my dads’ maxim.
What historians or books have most influenced your work? Why?
My University tutor was JJ Scarisbrick, a great historian and, remarkably for a British academic, a down to earth and humble man. He wrote the definitive biography of Henry VIII, and for many years I tried to emulate his style. It was a ridiculous conceit of course as he was one hundred times the writer I could ever be—so out of desperation, I evolved my own style. The greatest historiography argument I ever got into was with a lecturer who described another of my heroes, Shelby Foote, as a “hack.” What he meant, of course, was that Foote was popular and used no footnotes or citations. I suspect he was jealous. Too often, history is written by academics for academics. I loathe this approach. Make your work credible, but most of all, make it readable. The most significant influence on my writing, however, comes not from a historian at all. The Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser are not Victorian military and political history, but they could be. Indeed, when first published in 1969 several eminent and well-gulled historians hilariously hailed his “autobiography” as a grand discovery to rival the Boswell diaries. In one of the passages Flashman observes, “In my experience, the course of history is as often settled by someone having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or a sailor getting drunk or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside.” It remains the best summation of the accidental vagaries of history I have read and one I try to remember when I write.
What are your go-to research resources?
Todd Braisted’s Loyalist Institute is a bible for anyone interested in studying Provincial regiments during the war. The rise of digitisation has been a boon to independent historians. I can now access obscure Georgian newspapers from minor provincial towns like Grimsby or Mansfield and read first hand letters, comments and opinions on the war that have probably never been read in two hundred years. Occasionally I come across a gem from a returning merchant or officer which gives a contemporary perspective on the war I had never even considered. The advertisements are also hilarious. I still long to find a bottle of “Spilsbury’s Antiscorbutic Drops” which apparently cured scurvy, gout, leprosy, rheumatism, hair loss and a failing libido, the majority of which I now suffer from!
Which of your own JAR articles is your favorite or most rewarding? Why?
“The death and resurrection of major John Andre” gave me the most pleasure as I think Andre would have gone on to be a substantial historical figure after the war. It inspired me to make a pilgrimage to Tappan where he was executed. I felt I owed him that. Miraculously the inn he spent his last night in still exists and the walk up the lane to the top of the gibbet hill is intact. I am not a believer in the supra-natural, but when I traced Andre’s last walk that dusk, I did not feel alone.
Other than your own contributions, what are some of your favorite JAR articles?
Daniel Murphy only did two articles some years ago, but both are wonderful technical assessments of the use of cavalry in the war. I have made extensive use of them. Jim Piecuch’s analysis of Pyle’s massacre is the best forensic investigation I have seen in the Journal.
What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a book for Westholme on Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion.
What other hobbies/interests do you enjoy?
I am a sports nut. I agonise over supporting the oldest (and worst) football team in the world. My other love is art history. I used to catalogue Victorian paintings professionally and still love Pre-Raphaelites paintings. Take a look at Ford Maddox Browns Work or William Frith’s Derby Day. They will tell you more about Victorian England than any thousand-page monograph.
Why is the Journal of the American Revolution important to you?
Last year I randomly purchased the most popular book on the Revolution being sold by Amazon. It turned out to be Killing England by Bill O Reilly. Jeez, Louise! When I wasn’t reading it with gritted teeth, I was reading it open-mouthed. We need non-partisan, authoritative sites like JAR more than ever in the present climate.
An interesting coincidence that this contributor profile appears on the 239th anniversary of Andre’s hanging! Perhaps his spirit still lingers since your walk up the lane to the gibbet hill!? Congrats – I enjoy your work.
Anyone who appreciates George MacDonald Fraser can’t be bad. Would loved to have seen one of his novels set during The Revolution.
I also love that Howard Pyle painting, and feel a similar stirring when I imagine the lines of those men marching with such iron discipline up that hill in the face of ruinous fire—I would love to read your criticisms of the historical accuracy of the painting!
Thank you very much for the research references; I will have to keep them in mind. And I am likewise exasperated by inaccurate literature on the Revolution…I have gone stamping around the house ranting to myself after having argued aloud with an article I felt to be misleading, so I sympathize with your reaction to Killing England. The American Revolution was such a fascinating, complex, multifaceted chapter in history—the reality is so surprising, so vivid of itself, that any distortion of it or oversimplification of it is not half as engaging as the real thing (to me) and even less helpful to understanding and learning from that history.
We ran an article on the accuracy of Howard Pyle’s Bunker Hill painting in September 2013; see it here: