Academic histories are all very well, but at times it is a pleasure to sit back and wallow in an old-school military tale of flinty-eyed men doing battle. That is what James Holland, a seasoned craftsman, offers in SICILY ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe (Atlantic Monthly Press, $30). He doesn’t wade into gender issues, “periodization,” patriarchism or other currently fashionable matters. Rather, he simply gives us a history of Anglo-Saxon males slaughtering one another while Italians mainly try to get out of the way. Academic historians like to call a certain optimistic type of approach “Whig history.” By contrast, I’d call Holland’s book “Tory history” — and mean it mainly as a compliment.
Holland fortifies his style with dollops of British slang. George Patton is depicted “still chuntering on” about an alleged lack of sufficient air cover for his invasion forces. (Holland summarizes Patton as “a strange beast” with “obvious shortcomings,” which strikes me as harsh but fair.) Any historian who views British commanders of the campaign as treating American forces unfairly “really does need knocking on the head.”
As that last line indicates, Holland is comfortable with delving into the historiography of the Sicily campaign. He refutes the notion that the Allies made a huge mistake by allowing 29,000 German soldiers to escape the island to the Italian mainland, noting that it was impossible for Allied aircraft or ships to operate in the Strait of Messina. He does pay attention to errors of the Allies — the lethal mess the British made trying to land troops in gliders, and the fact that two American soldiers murdered 82 prisoners of war. But over all, he concludes that the Allied achievement in taking Sicily in the summer of 1943 was greater than has been appreciated by most historians. In one memorable passage he portrays a German general gazing down at the huge American invasion fleet and concluding that Sicily was lost — and probably the entire global war as well.
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Donald F. Johnson studies an earlier British military operation in OCCUPIED AMERICA: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, $34.95). Johnson teaches at North Dakota State University but generally avoids the buzzwords of academia, except for using the currently fashionable term “contingent” or “contingency” four times in the book’s initial nine pages. His thesis is that the humiliations and deprivation of occupation turned many Americans against the British. I was unpersuaded by this — it seems to me that after the British defeat at Yorktown, everyone knew the jig was up and even Loyalists began revising their plans — but I was absorbed by Johnson’s depiction of occupied America.
We tend to think of America as occupying other countries — Japan and Germany after World War II, Afghanistan and Iraq more recently. By Johnson’s account, early Americans behaved pretty much as occupied populations generally do, trying to maintain ties to both sides and trying to make some money out of the chaos. Under the burden of huge numbers of British troops, the prices of fuel and food quadrupled in many cities. The British garrison in New York City, which itself was occupied for some seven years, consumed some 70,000 cords of wood a year. In a sophisticated act of financial and commodity arbitrage, a “Mrs. Carrow” specialized in collecting Continental dollars from American prisoners of war in the city, where that money was worthless, and taking it to unoccupied parts of New Jersey to buy boatloads of pork, beef and flour, finally returning to Manhattan to sell those goods for hard British currency.
Women and Black residents generally found more freedom in occupied areas than they had previously enjoyed, Johnson notes. Most strikingly, in 1782 a group of formerly enslaved women threw a formal party for British officers in Charleston, S.C., and danced with the soldiers until nearly 4 in the morning. Some white Charlestonians were shocked by this so-called “Ethiopian Ball.”
British policy toward Black people, both enslaved and freed, was more enlightened than that of the Americans. “All Negroes that fly from the Enemys Country are Free,” the British commander in New York declared. Black residents were not treated quite as well in occupied Charleston, in part out of British deference to local white sensibilities. But even there, they took on unusual roles. As the war wound down, the British deployed a unit of mounted free Black soldiers, the Black Dragoons, to patrol the lines. When the war ended, the majority of Charleston’s Black residents — some free, some enslaved — were evacuated aboard British ships. Ultimately some 75,000 people left the new republic with the British, including 15,000 Black people. Among them were some who had fled George Washington’s slave labor camp, Mount Vernon.
As Johnson demonstrates, war is almost always more complex than we remember it. Mocking the academic style of history is easy, especially its awkward cant, but in the end, contemporary scholars are doing a good job of illuminating the forgotten intricacies of nationality, ideology, race and gender in wartime.