A Community of Arms

December 21, 2012, 10:03 pm

(Margaret Sankey, a military history colleague of mine who specializes in the 18th century, made a lovely point yesterday about the effect of musket technology on community and so I immediately thought “Guest post!” Here it is).

The Surrender of the Town of Ulm, 1805” gives a good sense
of the tight-packed formations made necessary
by the musket

The muzzle-loader in my hands was really heavy, and I was fumbling with the percussion cap as the sergeant bellowed out drill commands. I completed the step and looked left and right quickly, to see if I had kept up with the colleagues on either side of me, and was relieved to be right with them. After what seemed like interminable tries, no one had dropped caps in the grass, or lagged too far behind, or gotten flustered. We were ready. We were ready.

I’m very familiar with guns. The bolt-action rifle I use for target shooting pushes me to concentrate and focus, an individual discipline I practice as a kind of meditation. This musket, on the other hand… I was on one of the beautiful green lawns at West Point with a variety of colleagues for the Summer Seminar offered to enhance historians’ understanding of military history. A re-enacting group from New York, specializing in the Civil War, generously came out to demonstrate and then teach us 19th century drill. Almost all of us had handled guns, but this was different. It wasn’t an individual activity, it was unavoidably, unmistakably communal.

The musket technology of the Early Modern era changed warfare profoundly. It was big, and ungainly, and it spat gunpowder and smoke in your face. It kicked like a mule and required multiple steps to use, none of which could be neglected without dire consequences, and a round fired from the smooth-bore barrel had little chance of hitting a specific target. Despite these drawbacks, it allowed a commoner to, quite literally, have a shot against a mounted knight, a draw that made the disadvantages worth working around. When Alexander Dumas, who spent his life in the shadow of a father who had helped to mold one of the world’s great Citizen Armies into an effective force against the Ancien Regime of Europe, gave his musketeers the slogan, All for one, and one for all[1], he was stating a shrewd truth about these new weapons. They empowered a man to stand up to the old order, or protect his family and property, but not on his own.

In the New World communities of the 17th and 18th centuries, this was a basic fact that shaped everyday life. Not only did the local population center need skilled people to service and repair these weapons constantly, they had to be handled by people who trained regularly with them. A few people might have muzzle-loading rifles, a technology that delivered more accuracy at the price of slow, difficult loading and limited repeats of use, but muskets were the available tool. Like the fire brigade, the informal or more formally organized militia had to plan and train. Barbara Ehrenrich’s Dancing in the Streets and William McNeill’s Keeping Together in Time both explore the effect on a group of people who work together to synchronize their movements and act purposefully together, whether dancing, swinging sledgehammers or doing musket drills. Along the way, you recognize who loads a little slower, who struggles with the height of the muzzle, whose movements are efficient and fast, an awareness of the physical presence of other people that few of us do outside of conducting social niceties.

This awareness had the heavy weight of life or death. I once went on a field trip with adult colleagues, some of whom insisted on rushing, even running, from place to place while others brought up the rear far behind. We all got to the same place, but lost the interaction along the way. Muskets are a great leveler in that regard. It doesn’t matter if you loaded fast and without error–you’re moving to the achievable tune (3 shots a minute, maybe, for regular but not ruthless, driven, practice that couldn’t be expected of non-professionals) of what can be sustained. For a volley to work, everyone had to get to the same readiness at the same time and be able to continue that way under direction, sometimes in motion, certainly while being attacked. After the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the failed armed insurrection where I spend most of my time, the British government developed a simplified drill for their own counties, the Norfolk Discipline, which quickly became the guide for many colonial practices. When Farmer Bob misses two market day drills in a row, or when teenage Joe wants to join but is impatient and obnoxious, people are motivated to intervene. Just needing enough capable people to form a volley, and wanting to take part in the protection of your community are compelling sources of local stability.

Not only did participants have to get to that state of physical readiness, they had to be willing to be there. Standing in lines, out in the open, facing an armed enemy is a profoundly humbling and frightening experience. You’re not firing from cover, you’re not able to obey your own brain’s impulse to run for some. You must stand, less than the length of a football field away from the enemy, shoulder to shoulder with other people, with the full knowledge that being hit likely meant amputation, infection or death. An individual might stand up to authority alone in court, or in the doorway of his house, but against armed men, the person with a musket had to be a vital part of a group, accepting commands to stay in sync and in tune to the movements of the whole line. Not only did you have to have the willingness to fight for something–a lot of your neighbors did, too. Defense of the community from an immediate, direct threat was an obvious reason, but a more abstract one or one further away demanded explanations and investigation. This necessity spotlights the importance of people like Thomas Paine, whose works like Common Sense, read out loud in taverns and around campfires, cemented that communal purpose. Not only would you be counting on the commitment of the other people in the line, you knew that if it failed, the community risked the loss of people deeply woven into it’s survival and continued function. A powerful king might compel obedience, but a small town had to rely on willing compliance.

From a modern perspective, a typical “Brown Bess” musket is a clumsy weapon alien to our familiar vision of conflict, frustrating and annoying my students who always start out thinking that people who stand in open fields in lines must be stupid. But maybe we should also consider that very technological aspect of the musket to be an important social and political force. By making it thinkable to challenge the old way, but impractical singly, it may well have provided important community cohesion and inculcated the necessity of weighing effects on the whole. In the 1780s, the idea of bearing arms was inexorably as much about linking arms in common cause. All for one. One for all.

[1] Incidentally, this phrase is also the informal motto of Switzerland, a country with a long tradition of citizen militias and marksmanship, and gained its modern popularity after being used as the slogan of a relief campaign after major flooding in 1868.

Margaret Sankey is a Professor of Political Science and Strategic Studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead, teaching military history, international security, European and comparative politics. Her book, Jacobite Prisoners of the 1715 Rebellion: Preventing and Punishing Insurrection in Early Hanoverian Britain, came out in 2005.

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