- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005



By James Webb

Broadway Books, $25.95, 369 pages


Veteran novelist James Webb is on a dual mission in this, his first foray into history. Vietnam veteran that he is, Mr. Webb is out to search and destroy, as well as search and enlighten. At one point each search takes him back to the jungles of Vietnam, but each also lands him in a few historical thickets, including that of his own family. Part grand historical sweep and part loving family tribute, this is a dual history as well. How else to characterize a book that begins at Hadrian’s Wall (or somewhere on the fringes of the Roman Empire) and ends in Kensett, Ark. (or somewhere near the heart of modern America). But then, given his dual objectives, what choice did Mr. Webb have when his subjects are the “British Empire’s greatest voyagers.”

The result is at once a history of a people and the history of James Webb’s people. These folks are the Scots-Irish. That’s Scots, not Scotch, Irish. Webb is quick to correct historians past who have persistently mislabeled his ancestors. Scotch, after all, is a drink. Not that the Scots did not drink. They did — and do. So do the Scots-Irish, whether or not they are simultaneously pursuing other diversions.

This is a sensual history of a sensual people. Puritans they surely were not. And cavaliers they also were not. Mr. Webb is also quick to borrow from other historians, including David Hackett Fischer, whose epic “Albion’s Seed” traces the four great British migrations to North America: Puritan, cavalier, Quaker, and Scots-Irish. It is Mr. Fischer’s major point that each migration was separate and very distinct. It is Mr. Webb’s major point that the distinctive feature of the Scots-Irish is that they were and are first and foremost a fighting people. With them, warfare is almost sensual; and fighting is less a diversion than a way of life.

In explaining why they were “born fighting,” Mr. Webb does not hesitate to borrow from historians who preceded him, not the least of whom is Winston Churchill. While much of this story is derivative history, it is derivative history at its best. And it is that because it is a passionate history of a passionate people.

James Webb is neither ashamed to cite his sources nor embarrassed to cheer on — and cry over — his subjects, including the original Braveheart, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, or James Webb, Sr. Fighters all, they were protectors all — and defenders all. Arrayed against them were those who would be their imperial masters, whether Roman or English. While Mr. Webb does not slight the British Isles story of his people, whether in Scotland or Ulster, he pushes on as they pushed on to the American side of the Atlantic divide.

Frontiersmen of sorts in Ulster, the Scots-Irish were logical candidates to blaze trails into the American West. In fact, many of them were recruited for that very purpose. Because these trails led into Indian territory, these born fighters had ample opportunity to do what came naturally. Thus it would be the Scots-Irish who not only opened the way for succeeding generations of settlers, but who contributed to their own vilification at the hands of modern historians, James Webb, Jr., very much excluded.

Once Mr. Webb’s people reach America’s shores, derivative history gives way to revisionist history. Save for their role in the American revolution, the Scots-Irish have either been vilified or, worse yet, forgotten. Mr. Webb is determined to remember them or rehabilitate them — or both — and to destroy a few historical myths in the process. In his hands the Scots-Irish of the American Civil War are less unwitting back country accomplices of the slaveholding cavaliers than they are forthright defenders of their homeland against Yankee invaders.

In the post-Reconstruction American South they are less racist rednecks than actual or at least potential populists. At times Mr. Webb veers uncomfortably close to assigning victimhood status to his forbearers, but invariably he draws back, preferring in the final analysis to see more virtue than victimization in their stories.

The more recent story of the Scots-Irish runs counter to the larger story of the multi-culturizing of America in two important ways. In the first place, in a colorized America the Scots-Irish have been homogenized with the rest of white America. Multi-culturalist that he sort of is, Mr. Webb is out to de-homogenize them.

To be sure, James Webb is no ordinary multiculturalist. His Scots-Irish are not simply loyal to one another (when they are not fighting one another); they are loyal to their country as well. That loyalty is highlighted by their willing military service in all of America’s modern wars, including Vietnam.

To a considerable extent, this was a war fought by peasants (or their fairly immediate descendants) on both sides. In fact, if any ethnic group was overrepresented on both volunteer and casualty lists, it was the Scots-Irish. Will that continue to be the case in future American wars? Mr. Webb expects so, even as he is quick to add a proviso.

On the one hand, his is a culture whose “fabric” hasn’t really changed in 2000 years. So why should it change any time soon? For the past 300 years the Scots-Irish have constituted the “molten core at the very center of the unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America.” So why should that core suddenly shrivel up and die?

On the other hand, James Webb has chosen to leave himself some serious wiggle room: “if the cause is right,” he concludes, coming generations of Scots-Irish will fight and “never retreat.” Nowhere in this book does this chronicler of these ancient warriors mention America’s current war. One can only wonder which speaks louder, Mr. Webb’s conscious silence on such a very big subject or his careful use of those two little words, “if” and “right.”

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches American history in Minnesota. He can be reached at: [email protected]normandale.edu

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