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Washington Irving
How Washington Irving Invented American Military Historiography
By Doyle Quiggle

If we do not think of the father of American literature, Washington Irving, as a military historian, perhaps that's because we've so completely isolated military from so-called civilian (especially academy-generated) historical analysis. Indeed, because both 20th and 21st century American military history have been so strictly fire walled from mainstream history, we rarely if ever discuss Irving's contributions to the invention of a distinctly American style of military history in which the individual character of military leaders is examined as the key to understanding broader patterns in American history. If we remember Irving at all, we recall him as a man of letters who wrote fairy tales, and not as a serious military historian. Consequently, we cheat ourselves out of a regenerative source of inspiration for our current efforts to make historical analysis of the military dimensions of the past inform our understanding of purportedly non-military subjects, like economics, politics, culture.

For nearly six decades as one of America's first professional men of letters, Irving tirelessly devoted himself to chronicling warfare and to explaining its relation to broader historical patterns, especially the rise of American civilization. Among other conflicts, he chronicled the military dimensions of War in Tripoli, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, the Islamic conquest of Arabia, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula, the Catholic re-conquest, and North American Continental Conquest/Indian Wars. He penned pithy military biographies of George Washington, Mohammed, Christopher Columbus, Captain Bonneville, the first generation of US Naval Officers, numerous Indian chiefs, and an assortment of militia frontiersman. These biographies offer lessons in military leadership still potentially instructive to today's leaders.

However, Irving didn't merely relate the events of wars past. He strove to reveal the underlying and often obscured stubborn and irreducible military realities of his era's contested territories, especially where his countrymen were reluctant to acknowledge the bellicosity of a region. In this regard, Irving's historiography is both didactically and politically interventionist. In these histories, he spends fervent rhetorical energy and narrative cunning getting his countrymen to see the bellicose nature of the settlement of the North American continent. Irving's histories do not make visible the military dimensions of continental conquest in order to urge his countrymen to relinquish their claim to continental unity. Quite the contrary, his histories advise them to be smarter, more exacting, and more directed in their use of military resources.[1] In this regard, he made a usable past out of previous military conflicts – the Barbary Wars, the American Revolution, the rise of Islamic empire -- specifically to illuminate the darkest military dimensions of the rise of American civilization. Acutely aware that his readership comprised military leaders, including the most influential US policymakers of his era, like Andrew Jackson, Senators Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, successive Secretaries of the War Department, among many others, Irving deliberately intended his military histories to influence American military and foreign policy. They are, in this sense, rhetorically and politically committed histories. His broadest rhetorical goal was to persuade his countrymen to adopt policies appropriately responsive to a territorium bellicus, especially in an American west that many Atlantic coast Americans had fantasized as a pacific arcadia.

What makes Irving's military historiography most distinctly American in both style and content, however, is its illumination of the moral ambiguities and leadership dilemmas of counterinsurgency warfare. Indeed, Irving was the first American military historian to perceive the conquest of the North American landmass as a protracted counterinsurgency, though he did not use that precise term. And, far more perspicaciously than his contemporaries, Irving perceived the tremendous psychic and moral challenges to individual leaders, both political and military, of fighting counterinsurgency.

One of Irving's most enduring insights into the leadership psychodynamics of counterinsurgency centers upon the military value of narrative history itself as both cognitive armor and weapon. A key feature of Irving's military historiography (its so-called “patriotic” didacticism) is that it not only recommends but deploys historical narrative as a kind of psychological shield and weapon for military leaders operating in what today we would call a grey zone, whose combatants involved more than armies fighting armies and navies fighting navies.

Irving's view of the military nature of North America is echoed by the modern scholar of Indian warfare, Tom Holm:

It has been tempting to apply a technological determinist argument to the conquest of the Americas. The four-century long struggle for North America, however, cannot so easily be typified as a relentless duel between superior European firepower and Native American tenacity. Cortés did not simply blat his way to Tenochtitlan and destroy the Aztec Empire; neither did the Dutch, English, French, or Americans easily overrun Native American lands. The “Indian Wars” were far more complex. Perhaps most significant, these wars involved whole societies versus whole societies rather than armies against armies. In that sense, the Indian Wars were total-decisive, and they resulted in the militarization of entire communities. They also brought about new alliances and the appearance of completely new militarized groups among both the indigenous and the colonizing people. (164)

Irving never applies a “technological determinist argument” in his histories of the conquest of North America. He writes, more intuitively than deliberatively, against that determinism. His historical narratives seek to reveal precisely how and where entire communities were being militarized, which new alliances were forming and among which groups, and which groups were being militarized. Irving's military histories, especially his Western trilogy, demonstrate, as Holm puts it, that “whole societies were militarized to the point that the more normal activities of hunting, raising crops, conducting ceremonies, and rearing children became secondary to waging war” (Holm, 170). Irving's narratives self-consciously seek to open his countrymen's eyes to that dark fact.

As a reminder of Irving's contributions to American military historiography, I will briefly trace its evolution by discussing the Naval Biographies and parts of his Western Trilogy specifically as what their author intended: Narratives of how the military dimensions of the past weigh heavily upon the present.

[1]. Irving was “Machiavellian” in the academic and not in the popular sense of the political adjective. He understood political sovereignty as the ability to enforce complicity at home and to influence policy abroad. And he understood military might as the guarantor of sovereignty.

* * *
© 2024 Doyle Quiggle

Published online: 09/12/2019.

Written by Doyle Quiggle. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Doyle Quiggle at:

About the author:
Doyle Quiggle researches the anthropology of war from within the battlespace, focusing on counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency. He has deployed as a battle-space professor to US Troops downrange, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa and at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad, Afghanistan. His articles have appeared in Small Wars Journal; Journal of Terrorism Research; The Marine Corps Gazette; Foreign Policy; Arizona Quarterly: Augean Stables; SPME, and elsewhere

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of
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