Quill and Ink: Why Linear Tactics?

One of the common cultural images of the American Revolution involves lines of men standing fifty yards apart and trading volleys. To the modern observer, one of the first questions that comes to mind is: “Why?” Why would people stand there like that? Well, as usual, it’s complicated.

The Battle of Long Island

First of all, there is the question of firepower. A well-trained Eighteenth Century musketeer could get off roughly four shots per minute, with an effective range of less than one hundred yards. Skilled commanders would hold their fire the enemy was within fifty yards (“…until you see the whites of their eyes!”), to maximize the impact of the first volley. That first volley was especially critical because black powder weapons belched out great quantities of smoke, obscuring the target. Furthermore, muskets quickly fouled and had delicate mechanisms (a lost or broken flint immediately turned a firearm into a club), so it was a case of diminishing returns.

It was also necessary to keep soldiers under control. When placing so many soldiers in such close proximity, with loaded firearms, for safety’s sake it was critical to control who fired when. Otherwise, “friendly fire” and accidental shootings would have been even more common than they already were.

The threat of cavalry attack also demanded tight formations. Large cavalry formations could quickly close the distance to enemy troops and use their swords and shock effect to break up infantry units. To repel cavalry charges infantry units learned to form tight, three-deep squares, using musketry and bayonets to keep the horsemen at bay.

Considering these factors, there really was no other option than to keep the men close. The objective in combat is to impose one’s will on the enemy, and with black powder muskets the only way to generate enough firepower to physically stop a body of enemy troops from doing something was to form up tightly, get close, and “pour it on.” In most cases a high proportion of troops under fire from enemy musketry survived, although there were cases when units taken by surprise or poorly handled were annihilated. (Teaser: in my upcoming novel, A Nest of Hornets, a British grenadier company meets this fate at the Battle of Spanktown).

Battle_of_bunker_hill_by_percy_moranHaving said all that, combat in North America was different from combat in Europe. In the Americas distances were greater, troops less numerous, the ground more broken, and cavalry less prevalent. These factors forced commanders on both sides to adapt their tactics: there is compelling evidence that units on both sides adopted open formations, with up to a yard between soldiers, and also employed double, rather than triple lines. These adaptations made formations less vulnerable to incoming fire and enabled them to cover more ground. At Bunker (Breed’s) Hill in 1775, for example, the British used tight formations and attempted to trade volleys with the American militia, who fought from behind breastworks. As a result they suffered staggering casualties. They also learned to rely on bayonet charges. Their third attack at Bunker Hill was carried out with bayonets only, and succeeded. The British took this lesson to heart.

Starting with the Battle of Long Island the standard British tactics involved approaching to just within rifle range of American units and then rapidly closing the distance (often at a jog) until they could deliver a bayonet charge. This tactic served them well until the Continental Army gained enough experience and training to meet the British in the open field on something approaching equal terms. At Saratoga (1777) and Monmouth (1778) the Continentals proved that the British could no longer rely on the bayonet to always carry the day. But it would take three more years of bitter fighting until the Continentals and their French allies decisively proved the futility of the British cause at Yorktown.


Update: A Nest of Hornets

A Nest of Hornets is moving right along!

The third novel in the Gideon Hawke series is set in New Jersey in the winter of 1777. The action includes several skirmishes from the “Forage War,” during which the Continental Army and militia forces harassed, and in some cases outright defeated, British efforts to collect food and forage from the New Jersey countryside.

This novel is a bit different from the two prior books (This Glorious Cause and Times That Try Men’s Souls) in a few ways:

  • It is more relational. We spend more time with Gideon and Ruth. The reader will find more about their characters, and the ways in which they complement each other.
  • It is a little darker. Times That Try Men’s Souls covered some bleak times in both the Revolution and in Gideon’s state of mind, but A Nest of Hornets explores themes of temptation, division, and betrayal.
  • It is historically less precise. Not that I didn’t try! Many of the actions described in Spanktown Marker smthe book are “historical footnotes;” for example, there are no historical parks dedicated to the actions at Quibbletown or Spanktown (good luck even finding those place names on a modern map). There was a bit more estimation, guesswork, and artistic license involved in developing those chapters.
  • You don’t know how it ends. Cause and Times were centered on well-known historical events. The main plot line of A Nest of Hornets is less clear cut, and the climax may come as a bit of a surprise.

Hopefully by now you are looking forward to reading it. The good news: that time is drawing nearer! I am done editing the First Draft; The Second Draft goes to the editor this week!

Then, as I wait patiently, I can focus on the yet to be named Gideon Hawke #4. I can’t tell you much about it, except to say that in a few weeks I hope to visit the Saratoga National Historical Park.

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Reviews: Fun and Easy!

Book reviews are critical to the success of an author or book/book series, yet some people are intimidated by the thought of putting their thoughts “out there.” That is a shame, because reviews are critical for two reasons:

1) They tell the prospective reader what the book is all about. For example, a fellow author shared a 2-Star review that bemoaned her young adult book’s lack of adult content. The author was delighted, because the book is aimed at an audience that does not want adult content! So…a potential reader looking over the reviews can make a decision for herself on whether the book is for her.

2) Reviews sell books. First of all, a potential reader who sees a book with a lot of positive reviews is likely to think, “I might like it too,” and invest his hard-earned money in a new literary adventure. Amazon also promotes books with sufficient reviews, and having Amazon promote your books really helps!

“But,” you might say, “I’m not a writer. I wouldn’t know what to say.” That’s OK! Most reviewers are not writers. In fact, people typically do not expect a book reviewer on Amazon to be a Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert; they just expect the reviewer to have an opinion. Even a single honest line (such as, “I really liked this book!”) makes a difference.

So, here is my challenge to you: pick a book you have read recently and leave a review for it. If you need something to get your “opinion juices” flowing, simply write a review that finishes one or more of these statements:

  • I was drawn to read this book because…
  • My favorite character was…
  • I liked this character because…
  • The character I disliked the most was…
  • I disliked this character because…
  • My favorite part of the story was…
  • The part of the story that affected me the most was…
  • My least favorite thing about this book was…
  • I would / would not recommend this book to a friend;
  • Because…

Now…if you are trying to think of a book to review, I happen to know of a few books that could use some more reviews:

This Glorious Cause: http://www.amazon.com/This-Glorious-Cause-Gideon-Hawke/dp/1511465190/

Times That Try Men’s Souls: https://www.amazon.com/Times-That-Try-Mens-Souls/dp/1635030420/

Happy reading…and reviewing!

Quill and Ink: Post Traumatic Stress in the American Revolution

This is a topic that is very important to me, but which can be very difficult to discuss.

As a career soldier I served on six operational deployments, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Each of those experiences left me forever changed; in some ways for the better, and in some ways, well, not. When I set out to write historical fiction set in the American Revolution I am not sure I realized how cathartic it would be for me. One thing is certain: after I dragged my protagonist, Gideon Hawke, through the wringer a few times I started to think, “This sixteen year-old is going to have a hard time dealing with all this.” Perhaps unconsciously this helped me to highlight the effects war has on its victims and participants.

For the record: the 1770s were a very different time, and the American Revolution was a very different war from what we experience today. There were a few factors which may have contributed to lessening the effects of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) on Eighteenth Century soldiers. First of all, society was different. There was more of a sense of community; people were more likely to pass their time in each other’s company than alone. Without television, radio, the internet, or mobile devices, people were less likely to seek “alone time.” As Sebastian Junger points out in his recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, the isolation of late-Twentieth and early-Twenty-First Century life has contributed significantly to the impact of PTS in our society.

Secondly, death and injury were far more common. In modern America a person can easily go through life happily munching away on poultry, pork, and beef without ever seeing an animal slaughtered. Likewise, except in certain areas it is an anomaly to see a dead human body. Again, Colonial/Revolutionary America was different. Infant mortality was much higher, life was shorter, and more people lived off the fruits of their labors. Certainly the industrialized meat packing industry was non-existent, so people were more accustomed to seeing blood spilled. People in general were less sensitive to some forms of potential trauma.

Furthermore, many American Revolutionary War soldiers served short enlistments, meaning that they would be exposed to military life for only a short time and then return home. They might serve in the war again, or they might not. Some served long stints, but most did not; we now know all too well about the compounding effects of multiple, extended, repeated exposures to trauma. Many of my friends have, like me, served long stints in dangerous conditions, over and over again. Some Revolutionary War soldiers, like Gideon Hawke, did serve for extended periods, and paid the price.

TombRegardless of how different society may have been in the 1770s to 1780s, people were still people, and war was still war. The human body reacted to danger and near-death in essentially the same way. So, when people in the 1770s and 1780s were exposed to trauma, many exhibited symptoms of would today be labeled PTS: insomnia, nightmares, nervousness, hypersensitivity, gastrointestinal issues, substance abuse, hearing voices, suicide, and so on. There were other manifestations which are less common today. For example, soldiers who had killed enemy combatants in hand-to-hand combat sometimes reported seeing the “ghosts” of their vanquished foes. But many of the symptoms would be very familiar to a modern combat veteran. Whatever the symptoms, science had not yet come to terms with PTS, and had not made the link between, for example, a soldier’s honorable service and behavior that could be viewed as bizarre if not frightening. The closest contemporary science may have come was applying the term “nostalgia” to this condition; it implied a link to homesickness, and did nothing to help those suffering from PTS.

In the Gideon Hawke Series I have endeavored to show the effects of PTS in my characters. While he is often euphoric during combat, afterwards Gideon suffers from insomnia and nightmares; he is sometimes physically ill after an engagement; he is occasionally unable to control his emotions; he has contemplated suicide. His friend, Andrew Johnston, also suffers from insomnia, but in addition he sees the ghost of an Indian youth he stabbed to death many years prior. In my work in progress, her work in a military hospital is beginning to take a toll on Gideon’s love, Ruth Munroe. The war will continue to take a toll.

Believe it or not, it is hard for me to see these characters suffer from their invisible wounds (they do live in my head, after all). But in spite of any sympathetic reservations I might have, I feel obligated to see to it that they suffer, if only to honor the invisible wounds suffered by so many of my brothers and sisters in arms. Myself included.

To experience the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress through the eyes of Gideon Hawke, I suggest reading Times That Try Men’s Souls. https://www.amazon.com/Times-That-Try-Mens-Souls/dp/1635030420/

To learn more about the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress in modern combat veterans, or to get help for yourself or someone you love, I strongly recommend the non-profit organization Invisible Wound. https://www.facebook.com/InvisibleWound/

Quill and Ink: The Origins of Gideon Hawke

When I resolved to write a historical fiction novel set in the American Revolution, my first task was coming up with a protagonist. That was quite a challenge!

I did quite a bit of reading about the Revolution, and one of the things that struck me was the youth of many of the participants. It was not at all uncommon for boys as young as fourteen to be in the ranks. I wanted my novel to appeal to the young adult crowd, so what better way to do so than to make the protagonist a young man? So, I settled upon a character that was on the cusp of turning 16 when the first shots were fired on Lexington Common.

That led me to more research. I was fortunate to find that the Lexington Historical Society had compiled a great deal of material on life in Lexington, Massachusetts in the 1770s; much of it is available online. Diving in headfirst, I developed a decent feel for life and love prior to the Revolution. This helped color in a lot of the details about school, romance, work, and daily life.

Then came the subject of war. I had been in combat, and had seen the aftermath of battle, so I certainly did not want to glorify war. It is a mean, dirty business that takes a physical, psychological, and spiritual toll on the participants, and I wanted to convey that. Interestingly, in the age of black powder warfare it was possible for a musket-armed soldier to empty his cartridge box in the direction of the enemy without ever having the feeling he had killed anyone. Muskets were so inaccurate, and musket volleys produced such dense smoke, that most of the time soldiers fighting in line of battle might be firing blindly in the general direction of the enemy! I wanted my character to be absolutely certain he had taken a life; that is why I happened upon the idea of the long rifle.

In the 18th Century rifles were fairly rare on the battlefield. They took a long time to load and typically did not take bayonets, making rifle-armed formations impractical for conventional operations. They were excellent hunting weapons, however: the spiral grooves (rifling) in their barrels imparted a spin to their projectiles, making them lethally accurate at 200-300 yards or more. Because of this they were used heavily on the American frontier, and once the Revolution started specialist rifle units were quickly formed to scout and harass the British. The point is that a rifleman could easily select a target, take aim, fire, and be certain that his shot had found its mark. I wanted my character to have that certainty, because it allows me to explore what that knowledge does to people.

There was a catch of course: rifles were very uncommon in Massachusetts in the 1770s. In fact, I could find no evidence of the use of rifles at Lexington/Concord or Bunker Hill. I decided to press on, highlighting the rifle as an exception to the norm (hooray for artistic license!). But to do so, I had to create a backstory that explained how a 15-year old boy in Lexington in 1775 could be a proficient rifleman and woodsman. That led me into more research: this time into the French and Indian (Seven Years) War and other Colonial “Indian” wars. I decided that my character’s father would be a deceased veteran of the French and Indian War; leaving home (Lexington) for adventure on the Pennsylvania frontier, he acquired a rifle and became a backwoodsman. That connection enabled me to link his character not only to Pennsylvania, but also to George Washington. Now I was off and running!

But…what to name him? Biblical names were common in the 1700s; I wanted a warrior’s first name, so I settled on Gideon. As for the last name, well, it had to sound kind of cool, be not too outlandish, and not be already used. I assembled several combinations, and did a lot of Googling (it’s amazing how many literary characters are named Gideon) until I settled on Gideon Hawke. I think it has a certain ring to it!

And so:

Gideon Hawke was born in Pennsylvania on April 20th, 1759, his mother dying in childbirth. His father, Aaron, was born in Massachusetts but ran away at a young age to find adventure on the frontier. He became a rifleman and fought in the French and Indian war; he fought valiantly alongside George Washington in the Braddock Expedition and was later badly wounded at Fort Carillon. After Gideon’s birth, Aaron realized he could not care for him alone for long, so he took his son back to Lexington, Massachusetts to be near family. Before he died, Aaron did his best to train young Gideon in the ways of the frontier: to hunt, to shoot, to be independent, and to lead. After Aaron’s death in 1774 Gideon felt increasingly alone. In April of 1775 Gideon was struggling with decisions about life and love until one fateful morning: his friend told him the militia was forming on the Common because the British were en route through Lexington to Concord. Gideon went out to watch the excitement, and then the shooting started. Gideon was assaulted by British troops, his friend was killed, and a war had started. Taking up his father’s rifle, he resolved to make the British pay dearly.

With a plausible backstory and connection to George Washington, I was able to set the stage to transfer Gideon into Thompson’s Rifle Battalion, aka the First Continental Regiment. This was the first unit formed by the Continental Congress, and Washington relied heavily on it, especially through early 1777, and it fought in most of the major battles of the war. Through the end of Times That Try Men’s Souls Gideon has served in the First Continental through some of the toughest fighting of the Revolution. He has been promoted, endured great hardship, and has seen many of his friends and colleagues fall in battle. And his story continues. He and the lads will be back in action in A Nest of Hornets, due out in January 2017.

I hope if nothing else Gideon Hawke does honor to those brave men and women, the “Winter Soldiers,” who stayed with the colors in the dark day of 1776-1777, and kept their Glorious Cause alive.

Quill and Ink: The Importance of the Declaration of Independence

I suppose that for some people it might go without saying that the Declaration of Independence was important. Most people probably don’t think much about it. But aside from being one of the most critical documents in defining the idea of “America” it was also a critical step in winning the War for Independence. On this 240th Anniversary of its signing, it’s worth taking a look at why it is so important.

Kings and queens tend to not be fond of rebels. The political landscape of Europe in 1776 was much different than it is today: revolutions had not yet swept the royals from power. While some nations (Britain, for example) were constitutional monarchies, most were, frankly, dictatorships. While many European countries considered Great Britain an external threat, popular revolutions at home were an even greater internal threat, so supporting a bunch of upstart colonists on the far side of the Atlantic in an illegitimate revolt against their lawful sovereign might inspire people closer to home to take up arms themselves.

The Declaration of Independence changed all that. By laying out American grievances, it made the case that King George and Parliament had violated basic American rights and thus forfeited their own legitimacy. Friendly nations need no longer concern themselves with a band of rebels; they could now choose to embrace a young nation fighting to preserve its independence from a tyrannical power. This was altogether more palatable in the royal courts of Europe.

The Declaration of Independence also complicated things for the British. When the Howe Brothers (General and Admiral Howe, respectively commanders of Crown Land and Naval forces in the Americas) arrived in New York Harbor in 1776 they were empowered to negotiate peace with the colonies. But there were no more colonies. By formally breaking the political bond to London, the Americans had “crossed the Rubicon,” and the Howes’ peace feelers consistently snagged upon the question of independence. The Americans considered independence non-negotiable; the British considered it totally unacceptable. These irreconcilable differences could only be resolved on the field of battle. Not until 1781, at a place called Yorktown, would the Americans (and their French Allies) finally convince the British that American Independence was here to stay.

Finally, about those troops who did the convincing for Washington: they needed something to believe in. It has become a bit cliché to say that soldiers fight for each other and not for a cause. But when you read firsthand accounts of the Revolution, you find that many of the men and women involved believed passionately in the American cause. Prior to July 4th, 1776, it was still conceivable that things could return to the status quo ante bellum. After July 4th, 1776, nothing would ever be the same again. The American would defend their independence or fail striving valiantly. Liberty or Death.


Reading the Declaration of Independence: by Mort Kunstler

In the midst of barbecue, baseball, and fireworks, I encourage you to think for a moment about the men of the 1st Continental Regiment, who on July 4th, 1776 were posted at Gravesend on Long Island, monitoring the British invasion fleet anchored in New York Harbor. When, a few days later, they were read the Declaration of Independence for the first time, they were within cannon range of the most powerful military in the world, and they knew they would pay with their blood, sweat, and tears to enforce that Declaration. But they, with the help of hundreds of thousands of their comrades, did ultimately succeed in enforcing it. Let’s give thanks for their courage and dedication.


To learn more about the effect of the Declaration of Independence, and the darker days of 1776, I suggest reading Times That Try Men’s Souls.


Times That Try Men’s Souls!

This will be a day long remembered…

OK, so maybe it’s best to not mix sci-fi and historical fiction, but that’s how it feels to have my second novel published! Times That Try Men’s Souls is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions! Times That Try Men’s Souls

Pentian Publishing did a great job getting the book to market; I hope my readers will find it worth the wait!


The Battle of Brooklyn

Colonel John Haslet's Delaware Regiment covering the American withdrawal to the Fortifications at Brooklyn.

Colonel John Haslet’s Delaware Regiment covering the American withdrawal to the Fortifications at Brooklyn.

As I work through a career transition my progress on “Times That Try Men’s Souls” slowed to a crawl. By happy coincidence, in the last few days I have reengaged and have refined a few of the pivotal chapters: those dealing with the fighting on Long Island, specifically the Battle of Brooklyn. As I put the finishing touches on that section, I realized that tonight marks the 239th Anniversary of the opening shots of the Battle of Brooklyn! Truly an auspicious sign!

God willing this time next year my readers will be able to mark the 240th Anniversary by reading about the battle from Gideon Hawke’s perspective.