A battle scene from the 18th century.
I really have never had much of an affinity for war, as such. The particulars of military history, in isolation from the civilian aspects of historical research, have never been an attraction.
Yet in retrospect I find that the theme of war is a thread that has run more or less continually through my professional life, in one form or another.
The first time I ever tried to connect verbal descriptions of an historic event to the landscape in which it happened - something of a trademark of my research now - was one summer day in 1961. I was at home, in Gilbertsville, Otsego County, reading a magazine story about the Battle of Oriskany. Here was a dramatic tale of a bloody encounter during the Revolutionary War, where a column of American militia were ambushed in a ravine.
I was so inspired by the intensity of this human event that I immediately drove to the battlefield site, some 60 miles away, and with the vivid descriptions still fresh in my mind, walked through the very ravine in which so many lives endured so many tragic hours.
The place is a State Historic Site now, and I have gone back many times since as part of my work. But nothing will ever compare to that first intense experience of feeling connected to the moment of history - of standing in the very footsteps of the past.
Perhaps that was one reason the led me, during our national bi-centennial in 1976, to become first interested in, and then motivated to join the Brigade of the American Revolution, the premier 18th century historical reenactment group in the country.
I wanted to join a militia unit and to reenact the farmer soldier. I had little interest in the formality and rigor of the regimental line units in the Brigade. But by the time I was ready to join, the people who had "recruited" me had converted their unit from militia to regimental. So I was involved in three years of very exciting military duty - in a sense.
Of course part of the concept behind reenactment is the same sense of putting yourself into the experience of history, often at sites where the events being recreated actually happened. So there was a continuity here, after all.
In the mid-1980s I researched the Bennington Battlefield of 1777, another State Historic Site. In spite of the fact that it was a battlefield, and that it was a military event and the maps and eyewitness accounts that resulted from it that I was studying, the goal was to reconstruct the civilian agricultural landscape of this place. The war merely provided the documents and observations that made this sort of recreation possible.
Published as a study in 18th century landuse patterns, "War Over Walloomscoick" is hard to see as anything but a project in military history. But it really is not. One can best judge this assertion by reading the book itself. It reveals as much of the nature of rural frontier life as it does about warfare and conflict.
More recently I have rediscovered the misplaced location of a Mohawk village, or castle and used that information to anchor a study of colonial roadways connecting the Mohawk Valley to the Upper Susquehanna watershed. But although this study is rooted in civilian history - a 1790s tavern on the river; an apple orchard first planted by the Mohawks; a native village - the key to the puzzle was a British fort, built in the midst of the village during the French and Indian War. And so, as the title "Taverns, Forts & Castles" implies, the theme of war again runs through it.