Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Author's Corner with Len Travers

Len Travers is Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. This interview is based on his new book, Hodges’ Scout: A Lost Patrol of the French and Indian War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Hodges’ Scout?


LT: I first learned about Hodges’ Scout obliquely, as so often happens, while looking for something else in local records. I hail from, and still live in, southeastern Massachusetts, from whence also came many of Hodges’ men. While searching through local nineteenth-century town histories in connection with other events, I found references to a calamitous 1756 ambush in upper New York colony that included a number of men from my area. The accounts were vague and, as I discovered, seriously flawed. Curious, I began to follow the trails of evidence, and found that survivors of the fight had left clues to a much more complex, varied, and fascinating human story--stories, really--than simply an underreported scrape in the woods. Theirs were accounts of high hopes and frustration, of warfare in an unfamiliar environment, of a frightful, bloody encounter, of harrowing captivities and then, for the survivors, a difficult homecoming. So why had I never heard of Hodges’ Scout before?


But there were other questions. Most American colonial soldiers were volunteers; what had motivated them to be there? What did they think about their service; what did it mean to them? As the records of Hodges’ men reveal, a number of imperatives, by themselves or in combinations, prompted young New England men (and some not so young) to leave their secure coastal towns and enlist in provincial regiments – to become soldiers of empire in an international conflict they only partially understood. Some of Hodges’ men survived the massacre but endured long captivity, some for the duration of the war. Taken together, their stories illustrate the varieties of experiences awaiting the more – or less – fortunate victims of defeat in this hybrid war of European armies in wilderness environments.


JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hodges’ Scout?


LT: The story of Hodges’ Scout can tell us much about this particular war as ordinary young men--those without whom wars cannot be fought--actually experienced it and, for those who survived, remembered it. My chronicle of this “lost patrol” assumes that the lives and experiences of ordinary men and women in war are as instructive, and as compelling, as those of the “great.”


JF: Why do we need to read Hodges’ Scout?


LT: First, it’s ripping good yarn, if I say it myself. Because of my focus on the evidence of human experiences, the reader will encounter facets of this war not commonly addressed in standard chronicles. Throughout the book, I try to engage the reader in weighing the sometimes meager, sometimes contradictory evidence from which we attempt to make sense of the past. It is an exercise in historical forensics, if you like. And I feel these are stories worth retrieving, as the experiences of war, for the common soldier, are largely made up of events that rarely command public attention.


JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?


LT: I have been fascinated with history since grade school. I began my college career as a history major in the 1970s, and I was so taken with the academic life, and the prospect of immersing myself in a subject I loved, that I knew then that historical research, and especially teaching, was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help others to understand the value of history, and to enjoy it as much as I do – I hope I have been somewhat successful in that regard.


JF: What is your next project?


LT: I’m currently researching a new book project, concerning a dramatic 1723 encounter between pirates and the Royal Navy in the waters off southern New England, and the subsequent trials held in Rhode Island. Not only does the incident show why, contrary to popular film & fiction, pirates avoided tangling with naval vessels, but also signifies an attempt by Crown agencies, through anti-piracy measures, to assert authority over increasingly intransigent American colonies.


JF: Thanks, Len!