Benedict Arnold and Contemporary Attitudes Toward Treason

Benedict Arnold is one of the most famous traitors in all of American history. While I doubt there is any sort of polling on the matter, his attempt to hand over control of West Point to the British has inspired countless books and made him, for a time at least, “the most reviled person in American history.” So infamous is his treachery that some of his most important battlefield victories have been almost completely forgotten by the general public. I picked up John Enson Harr’s Dark Eagle because I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of Benedict Arnold as a historical figure and I am glad I did. 

Harr’s story begins long before Arnold turns traitor. To be specific, the story starts June 18, 1776. At this time, the declaration of independence has already been issued but the war is not going well for American forces. The Patriots have just lost a key battle with the British and are being forced to make a humiliating retreat. Brigadier-general Benedict Arnold has been tasked with defending the rear guard and to the surprise of many, he excels in the role. Owing to his many military contributions to the Revolution—the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, the tactical victory at Lake Champlain—Arnold comes to believe he has earned the respect of his countrymen. The men who serve under him certainly respect him—the men he serves under are less keen on him. Washington extends him a great deal of respect but many of the other prominent generals in the Continental Army, such as Schuyler and Gates, are more reserved in their opinion. Members of the Continental Congress are downright hostile toward him and many refuse to honor his many battlefield victories with a promotion. Following a particularly stinging rebuke from the Continental Congress, Arnold decides to resign his commission. Nonetheless, he is unable to just stand by as the British attempt to invade New England and rallies local forces to the defense of Connecticut. The British forces suffer some humiliating losses at his hands, but Arnolds suffers a serious injury that leaves him with a debilitating limp. Despite the injury, Arnold re-enlists and the Continental Congress grudgingly honors his many victories.

As far as Arnold is concerned, it is too late and too little. He has bankrupted himself to help support the Revolution and has nothing to show for it besides an empty title and meaningless accolades. His actions in the Battle of Saratoga proved instrumental in securing victory, a battle that ultimately helped turn the tide of war in the Revolutionary War, but none of that seems to matter to the Continental Congress. Determined to improve his financial situation, Arnold decides to use his position as military governor of Philadelphia to gain much-needed income. That would he use his official position to requisition items for personal profit is not especially unusual and, truth be told, it would have been surprising had he declined to do so. Washington was famous for not taking a salary during the Revolutionary War but that did not stop him from taking advantage of an expense account of epic proportions. 

All the same, some of the more radical members of the Continental Congress considered Arnold’s conduct to be nothing short of shameful and subject him to an intense campaign of harassment and intimidation. Had he a thicker skin, or perhaps just more money, Arnold may have simply gritted his teeth and pretended the many slights of the Continental Congress caused him no hurt. Instead, he opted to share his grievances with his wife. In ordinary circumstances, this would not have been all that noteworthy. His wife, however, is no ordinary woman. His wife is Peggy Shippen and she just so happens to know John Andre. Owing to Andre’s position in the British military, Arnold is in a unique position to defect to the British cause.

Convinced that he will never be given his just due if he continues to fight on behalf of the Continental Congress, Arnold turns traitor and agrees to provide Andre information regarding West Point’s defenses. The intelligence, however, never reaches British command as Andre is captured before he can deliver it. Andre is hung and Arnold escapes to British territory. Still very much in possession of his wits, Arnold expects that he will command British forces and is heartbroken to discover that high command wants little to do with him. 

Ultimately, Arnold gains little by throwing in his lot with the British and continues to be reviled to this day. I think most people who read Dark Eagle will find it difficult to muster a strong antipathy toward Benedict Arnold. I hope that readers who enjoy Dark Eagle will also reflect on why Arnold inspires so much hatred as compared to other traitors. Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson killed far more Americans and did far less for their country while they still served in uniform–why do they have military bases and elementary schools named after them when Arnold does not? To be fair, Lee and Jackson did both serve in the Mexican-American war before turning traitor but even by the most charitable estimation, all they did was help expand American territory. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, helped America gain independence from Great Britain. Moreover, considering Lee and Jackson fought to preserve the institution of slavery, it is especially noteworthy that they are honored with so many monuments. Whether or not readers consider this worthy of contemplation, I think Dark Eagle will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written battle sequences and military politicking.

This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Amistad Book Review

I first learned about Amistad in middle school when we took time out of class to watch Spielberg’s Amistad. If I remember correctly, we only saw part of the movie but I struggle to remember exactly how much. In any case, I cannot say I found the movie particularly moving. I really enjoyed Spielberg’s historical films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s list but Amistad just did not click with me. I did, however, find the case interesting and was glad I learned more about the case in some of my American history classes in college. It was not until I read David Pesci’s Amistad, however, that I felt like I gained a truly rich understanding of this unique historical incident.

Told primarily from the perspective of Singbe, a Mende tribesman abducted and sold into slavery, the story starts with the Amistad ship en route to the Caribbean. In terms of establishing proper context, it is important to note that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was technically illegal at this time so the slavers must take great pains to avoid detection. The upside for the smugglers, however, is that demand for slaves remains skyhigh on the plantations which all but ensures a great profit, as long as they can make it to a Western seaport alive. Singbe and the other enslaved Africans have only a vague notion of what awaits them on the other side of the Atlantic, but they are not about to trust their well-being to slavers. They are at first powerless to improve their situation but Singbe comes into possession a small item which could change everything: a loose nail. He quickly takes possession of this invaluable treasure and uses it to unlock his manacles, as well as the manacles of those locked below with him. The slavers are woefully unprepared for a revolt and the abducted Africans quickly gain control of the ship.

As it turns out, they have not departed the metaphorical woods just yet. Only the slavers know how to operate the ship which begs a terrible question: can the leaders of the slave revolt trust the men who tried to sell them into slavery? They are contemptible men to be sure but Singbe, unofficial leader of the slave revolt, reasons that everyone on board hopes to make landfall so he grudgingly allows the surviving slavers to assist with navigation. It ends up being a costly mistake and the smugglers secretly navigate the ship towards a nearby slave country which just so happens to be the United States. Singbe and the other Africans are arrested by American forces and thereafter put on trial for murder. The subsequent trial comprises the bulk of the novel and features cameos from major historical figures like John Quincy Adams as well as many lesser-known historical figures.

I love a good courtroom drama as much as the next person, but it’s the final few chapters of the book I remember most. At this point in the story, the trial is concluded but the abducted Africans are totally destitute and lack the means to return to West Africa. Fortunately, an anti-slavery society has agreed to help raise funds for their return and the “Amistads” tour New England to solicit funds. The Amistads prove to be a major draw with the abolitionist crowd and as they inch closer to their explicit goal, the partnership between the anti-slavery society and the Amistads begin to fray. The former is dedicated to the abolition of slavery nationwide and believe the Amistads should play a key role in that struggle on account of their unique popularity with audiences. The Amistads, however, are concerned first and foremost with returning home and have little interest in serving as spokesmen for the abolitionist cause if it will delay their ability to return home.

Ultimately, the anti-slavery society makes good on their promise but the conflict raises interesting questions. Are the Amistads selfish for not doing more to help the abolitionist cause? Are the abolitionists selfish for asking so much of the Amistads? I don’t think there is a simple yes or no for either question and that’s what makes the ending of Amistad powerful for me. The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries and I recommend it to anyone interested in West African history, legal history, or American history.

Coming of the Storm and the Value of Narrative Experimentation

Coming of the Storm is not exactly a typical historical novel. Set in pre-Columbian North America, the Gears’ create a world where human beings can converse with spiritual entities and gods can intervene in earthly matters. I tend to avoid all things supernatural in my writing and while I don’t avoid it in literature per se, I do think it can be distracting in a historical novel. War God: Nights of the Witch is one example of this but I am sure there are many. Nonetheless, the Gears’ thread the needle very well in Coming of the Storm and incorporate supernatural elements into the story in a way that does not distract from the larger narrative. If anything, the narrative experimentation makes Coming of the Storm all the more memorable.

The protagonist of the novel, Black Shell, has a deep respect for the power of the gods but that respect is tempered by bitterness. Black Shell used to be an upstanding member of the Chicaza tribe, known to many as the Chickasaw today, but he had to abandon that life at the behest of the Horned Serpent. Rejected by his family and his friends, he wanders from town to town with five pack dogs and a vast assortment of trade goods. Years of trading have honed his skills as a merchant and bring Pearl Hand, his eventual wife, into his life but also earns him the enmity of powerful chiefs like Irriparacoxi.

Confident in his ability to strike a bargain with anyone, Black Shell is determined to meet with the mysterious people known as the Kristianos. He knows next to nothing about them, though he has heard they speak a tongue none to known of his countrymen and have deathly pale skin, but Pearl Hand has serious reservation about meeting with the Kristianos. Moved by her pleas, Black Shell agrees to not meet with them and to simply watch them from afar instead. As it turns out, the precaution matters little as Black Shell is caught spying on the Kristianos and forced into slavery.

Thanks to Pearl Hand, Black Shell is able to escape captivity and is tempted to flee for the safety of the interior. His spirit dreams, however, give him pause and force him to consider the future that will result should de Soto establish a secure foothold. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Horned Serpent tells Black Shell why it is important to rally defenders for the fight against the Spanish, explaining that “if de Soto survives, his stories will be told across the ocean. Others will see our land for what it is: rich in soils, forests, and game. They will not come for gold, Black Shell. They will come to conquer our world.” Not only does this do a great job of establishing the dramatic stakes of the story, I think it does a great job of alluding to the environmental destruction wrought by the colonial powers in North America. The rich soils have been squandered, the forests destroyed, and the game hunted to extinction.

Moreover, the destruction was not just limited to the environment. The colonial forays of “the mighty peoples on a choking land, longing to bring their ways here” led to the deaths of millions all throughout the Americas. Needless to say, this had profound social consequences for the region and the world. Often overlooked, however, are the theological consequences and the spirit dreams do a great job of reminding readers of the cultural erasure that happened as a result of European colonization. No scene does this better than the conversation between Water Panther, Snapping Turtle, and Black Shell. Black Shell struggles to understand how an immortal Spirit Being like Water Panther could ever experience fear, prompting Snapping Turtle to ask “Do you see images of the Piasas, the Horned Serpent, Eagle Man, or the Hero Twins on the Kristiano armor?” Black Shell does not and tells Snapping Turtle that he sees only “their cross of wood” on their armor. The chapter ends with Snapping Turtle asking Black Shell what will happen if de Soto and his cohorts triumph, “if they should convert all people to their cross… if no one believes in the Water Panther anymore.” It’s a powerful question and I imagine it will force many readers to think more critically about the European settling of the Americas.   

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in North American history or anyone who likes historical novels with a dash of supernatural wonder.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested in most libraries.

Beyond the Trappings of Traditional War Fiction: a review of Zoe Saadia’s Beyond the Great River

Beyond the Great River is a historical novel that takes place in the Great Lakes region during pre-Columbian times. I have spent little time in this part of the world and know little about the history of this region but I still found it quite easy to enjoy this novel. Military conflict, as is often the case in historical fiction, plays a large role in the story but, unlike many other war novels, Beyond the Great River does not build toward a pitched battle. In some respects, it may not even be appropriate to think of Beyond the Great River as a war novel. After all, the invading force in the book constitute barely 20 warriors and the village being invaded is not especially large. Moreover, there is little examination of battle tactics and no great general who we are supposed to root for in the story. Whether it is to be considered a war novel or an examination of a long-ago skirmish, Beyond the Great River has quite a bit to say about military conflict and human nature.

War has long been thought of as a young man’s calling and most historical novels are told exclusively from this perspective. However, Beyond the Great River chooses a different tack and we see the conflict mainly through the eyes of Kentika, a young girl who happened to spot the invading force as she was out exploring the forest. Desperate to save her home, Kentika rushes back to her village to inform her elders of what she saw. As it turns out, this ends up being a costly mistake. Not only do her elders initially dismiss her account, but she ends up leading the invaders back to her village because they are able to follow her fresh tracks. It’s a great example of how good intentions don’t always lead to good results and how defeat can often be brought about by very wise decisions.

Some readers will certainly find this counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about defeat as a culmination of bad choices, whether it’s Hitler’s decision to invade Russia or Napoleon’s decision to invade Spain. What makes Beyond the Great River such an interesting read to me is that it ponders the alternative: how battle often punishes the people who make smart decisions.

Moreover, the reader is also encourage to wonder about war itself. Might is right has been the norm for most of human history and Saadia’s depiction of the Ontario region during the time of the Great Law of Peace leaves little doubt this mentality was endemic even then. Saadia’s intent is probably not to insinuate that the Great Law of Peace was some sort of farce, a great many scholars think the Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy played a large role in the democratization of colonial societies in North America as well as Western Europe, but it should encourage introspection on the part of readers. Semantics often color our approach to history, whether it’s how we think of Alexander the Great or Shingas the Terrible, and I appreciate how Beyond the Great River encourages readers to think of how much different history can be when we incorporate the perspective of marginalized peoples as well as powerful societies.

Kentika’s attempt to inform her village of the danger posed by the foreign warriors is just one example of this. All throughout the story, logical and understandable decisions often backfire horribly and the reader is forced to wonder how much of victory depends not on genius strategy but dumb luck.

All in all, Beyond the Great Rivers is a brisk read and a great start to an interesting trilogy about pre-Columbian North America. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys stories with a strong female protagonist and to readers interested in learning more about early American history.

This novel is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and in paperback.

Review of Pride of Carthage

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of studies concerning the subject matter of historical novels published in English. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of historical novels deal with either the Roman Empire or WWII. Considering how many books are written on these subjects and how much I read historical fiction, some might assume that I have read a great many novels featuring characters with Latin names or events that took place somewhere between 1933 and 1945. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. Partially because so much has already been written about these epochs and partially because we learn a great deal about both in school, I used to avoid historical novels dedicated to these topics. I decided to break that rule when I read David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage and I am glad that I did.

While a great many novels have been written about the Second Punic War, Pride of Carthage is one of the few novels I know that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Carthaginian characters. This does offer some advantages in terms of brand differentiation but there is one big downside to telling the story from this point of view: the Carthaginians were the invaders. Generally speaking, the people who initiate wars of aggression are not very sympathetic characters. Whether the story takes place in Winterfell or pre-Columbian North America, creating sympathetic characters is key to capturing reader interest so telling the story from the Carthaginian perspective poses some obvious difficulties.

Durham confronts the challenge with impressive grace and portrays Hannibal Barca in a way that helps readers understand his intelligence and his motivations. Considering Hannibal’s reputation as a genius military strategist, a great many writers probably would have been tempted to use the first chapter to showcase his knowledge of battle tactics. Durham, however, chooses a different tack and uses the first chapter to showcase Hannibal’s genius as a military commander. The scene is not very long but does a great job of showing how Hannibal was able to win the loyalty of common soldiers and why so many soldiers were willing to follow him into such perilous straits.

When it comes to understanding the motivations of this long-dead general, no scene does this better than Imilce’s private conversation with Hannibal. Imilce, his first wife and his ardent supporter, pushes him to explain why he is so keen on war with Rome. His initial answers are rather milquetoast—glory, justice, freedom, and vengeance—and could have come from the likes of Hirohito or Bolivar. The scene gets truly interesting when Imilce presses Hannibal and he confesses he is motivated more by marital pride than martial pride. He promises his wife that “in two years you will be able to look from the balcony of this [room] or any other place you choose and know that all the Mediterranean world is yours to shape. How many men can say that to their wives and mean it?”

This explanation differs markedly from his more public proclamations—at one point in the book, he explains that Carthage needs to take the offense against Rome because Rome will become the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean otherwise, a rather prescient observation undoubtedly informed by Durham’s knowledge of the Punic wars—but this private admission is the one that truly stands out. To think that something so simple and pure as striving to give a significant other something no one else has can lead to something so ugly as war is both fascinating and horrifying.

Considering the book is about Hannibal Barca, no reader should be surprised that large-scale battles play a large role in the story. Personally, I like the descriptions of the Fabian campaign, the Battle of Cannae, and the Battle of Zama best but the answer will probably differ from reader to reader. To be fair, there are probably some readers who won’t enjoy these scenes at all but the political intrigue and the narrative arcs are more than enough to carry the story along. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Mediterranean history, albeit mainly from the African perspective as opposed to the European perspective, or to anyone interested in military fiction.

The novel is available on Amazon and in most libraries.

Review of The Young Jaguar, Book 1 in the Pre-Aztec Trilogy

Truth be told, I cannot remember how I first discovered Zoe Saadia’s work. While she was at one point a traditionally published author, I don’t think I have ever come across her work in a brick and mortar store. Perhaps I found her accidentally or perhaps I found her through Bookbub. No matter the case, I consider myself a big fan and will be sure to read more of her work in the future. Just recently, I finished her pre-Aztec trilogy, which has me reflecting on the first entry in that installment, The Young Jaguar.

To be completely honest, I was not that keen on the book cover and might have passed it up had I seen it in a bookstore. If I had, it would have been a big mistake. The Young Jaguar was one of my favorite reads of 2018 and a great example of historical fiction that educates as it entertains. I have studied Mesoamerican history pretty intensively–I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I have traveled to numerous pre-Hispanic sites in Mexicobut I knew next to nothing about the Tepanecs prior to reading The Young Jaguar.

In all fairness, not that much has been written about the Tepanecs in English. A long time ago, they were one of the most powerful polities in all of Mesoamerica but they were eventually supplanted in power by the Mexica, who established a much more powerful and much longer lasting military confederacy. During the time period that The Young Jaguar is set in, the Tepanecs are at the height of their power and the Mexica are eeking out a miserable existence along the shores of Lake Xochimilco. Most of the Tepanec elite can not be bothered to spare a thought for the weak Mexica people but the antagonist of the novel, Revered Uncle, is practically obsessed with them. He fears the Mexica will one day displace the Tepanecs but he cannot approve any military campaigns against the Mexica since he is a mere advisor. Few agree with his dark predictions but the death of Acolnahuacatl offers a unique opportunity to install a new ruler sympathetic to his own world viewif Revered Uncle is willing to force aside the legitimate heir.

Initially, the protagonist of the novel, Atolli, is inclined to offer his support to Revered Uncle. At this point, he does not understand Revered Uncle’s ultimate goal but he knows he is very fond of Revered Uncle’s daughter. It soon becomes clear, however, that supporting Revered Uncle will put Atolli in direct conflict with his father. His father cares little for politics but has a strong sense of duty that compels him to support the legitimate heir, a man who’d rather make war against distant peoples than confront the threat posed by the Mexica. A Mesoamerican version of Ned Stark, Tecpatl is willing to put his own life at risk to make sure the legitimate heir takes the throne. His foreign-born wife, Sakuna, feels a similar sense of duty, but devotes herself to protecting her family, even if it means making a deal with Revered Uncle that would force her to betray Tecpatl’s trust.

While the complex dynamic of the characters creates for some interesting twists and turns, the great strength of The Young Jaguar is Saadia’s ability to make the reader understand the motivations of the various characters. There may be no better example of this than Revered Uncle. A thuggish schemer, Revered Uncle a penchant for violence matched only by his knowledge of his domestic politics. He is not exactly a sympathetic character but he is definitely a character who understands the threat posed by the Mexica. He genuinely cares about the well-being of the Tepanec nation and like Tecpatl, the heroic War Chief who opposes him at every turn, cares little for material wealth or formal titles. He is as cunning as Tecpatl is naive and he helps makes The Young Jaguar a fascinating read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or to anyone who enjoys fast-paced narratives with complex characters.

This book is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and through Kindle select.

The value of historical fiction

Historical fiction is a small but growing genre and represents one of the most important ways modern audiences connect with history. David Von Drohle wrote an excellent biography of Lincoln that was purchased by over 2 million readers. Spielberg’s Lincoln grossed over 275 million dollars and was viewed by audiences all around the world. Oscar Schindler helped saved over a 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust but lived in obscurity for most of the 20th century. Not until he became the subject of an Oscar-winning film did he become a household name. Gettysburg has inspired countless academic texts but one of the most popular books ever written on the subject remains Shaara’s Killer Angels. All this begs the question: why?

After all, it’s not like historical fiction authors hold up their writing as the authoritative take on a subject. Flip to the back of any historical novel and you will almost always find some sort of note from the author that mentions the pains they went through to create an accurate story, followed by some sort of addendum regarding the creative licenses they employed. Authors like Hillary Mantel and James Alexander Thom are known for the exhaustive research they incorporate into their stories so it’s worth noting they don’t often turn to other historical novels when conducting research. Instead, they consult primary sources and secondary sources, even traveling to historic locations when possible.

There’s probably a myriad of reasons readers are quicker to pick up a historical novel than a history textbook but one reason stands out: historical fiction is fun. Plenty has been written about Lee and Longstreet but getting to imagine their mental state in the midst of battle or how they might have conversed in private brings them to life in a way that an academic biography cannot. A historical novel should never be used as the be-all-end-all take on a specific era or event, but it has undeniable value when it comes to nurturing an interest in history. After all, emotion is an important part of how we remember events and historical fiction is nothing if not an exploration of the emotions and actions of people from previous centuries.

Works like Gone With the Wind and Braveheart have given historical fiction a bad name when it comes to accuracy, but it’s difficult to argue that modern authors like Andrew Rowen don’t place a premium on research. Historical fiction does not lack for detractors and critics, but fans and authors have done a great job of elevating this genre to new heights. I hope the genre continues to grow and the plethora of great works in historical fiction should be a comfort to anyone interested in studying the past.