Melancholy Landscapes: Writing Warfare in the American Revolution

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Melancholy Landscapes: Writing Warfare in the American Revolution

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Title: Melancholy Landscapes: Writing Warfare in the American Revolution
Author: Mead, Philip C.
Citation: Mead, Philip C. 2012. Melancholy Landscapes: Writing Warfare in the American Revolution. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Though the American Revolutionary Army is often portrayed as a crucible of national feeling, this study of 169 diaries reveals that Revolutionary soldiers barely understood, or accepted as part of their community, large parts of the country for which they fought. The diaries include journals of ordinary soldiers, officers, and camp followers, and demonstrate the largely overlooked significance of soldiers’ physical environment in shaping their world-view. Typically episodic, often filled with random and apparently mundane detail, and occasionally dark with deep sadness and melancholy, diary writings reveal soldiers’ definitions of who belonged to the national community. Military historians of the Revolutionary War have long culled important details from various diaries, with the goal of constructing a synthesis of relevant narratives into a single history. In many ways, this project does the opposite. Instead of fitting soldier diarists into a single linear narrative of the war, it looks at how soldiers fought their war and understood its landscapes by creating a variety of sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting, personal and group narratives. The purposes and conventions that defined soldiers’ descriptions of land, architecture and people they encountered reveal their motivations for fighting, definitions of just violence, and hopes for victory. In turn each of these factors shaped their understanding of their war and the community for which they fought. This thesis follows American soldiers’ problem of understanding their new country through three chronological phases of the war. In the early years of the war, as American strategy focused on cities, soldiers struggled to protect themselves against the perceived immorality of city life. By blaming cities for their losses, soldiers developed a dark set of justifications for destroying civilian landscapes. In the mid war, the use of landscape description as a weapon intensified as both armies increasingly turned to scorched earth policies. As the campaigning turned south late in the war, northern soldiers guarded themselves against a landscape they perceived as inherently unhealthy. In their depiction of these places, soldiers used their diaries as tools to protect their bodies and souls, and contemplate American landscapes they often found foreign.
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