Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Real Jeffery Amherst

Amherst prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, but this year also marks two other two hundred fiftieths:  the birth of Noah Webster, who lived for a decade in Amherst, during which time he helped to found Amherst College; and the arrival in the American colonies of Sir Jeffery Amherst, after whom the town takes its name.

Our Amherst colleague Kevin Sweeney, a specialist in early American history--including Native American history and material culture--who is also teaching military history this year, offers a portrait of Jeffery Amherst in the current issue of Amherst Magazine.  In fact, it is a portrait of a portrait, for he takes the striking and enigmatic painting of Jeffery Amherst by Joshua Reynolds (Mead Art Museum, Amherst) as the point of departure for a series of reflections on a turbulent career.

As Sweeney observes, 
Jeffery Amherst played a prominent role in deciding the imperial struggle to control North America, yet today, many residents of the town and most alumni of the college know little about what he actually did. What is popularly known arises from the debate over his role in the spread of smallpox among Native Americans during 1763 (a controversy that Amherst magazine examined in 1989). But that event came at the sorry end of a meteoric career.
He proceeds to evaluate Amherst as man and commander, noting that his legendary caution was a strength as well a weakness, for it enabled him to master the mundane but crucial art of logistics, which both won battles and prepared the way for the victories of his fellow commanders. Indeed, Sweeney says, contrary to popular opinion, it was the adaptation of traditional European military discipline that both enabled the British to win the French and Indian War and provided the model that the rebellious Americans later used against their former British countrymen and rulers.

Sweeney concludes:
Reynolds captures Amherst’s genius triumphing over the sublime powers of nature. The artist paints Amherst as a proto-Romantic hero. But in reality, Amherst operated as a very model of a modern, managerial commander, employing meticulous planning, lavish resources, overwhelming manpower and superior firepower to force his foes to surrender unconditionally. It’s an approach to waging war that bears a certain resemblance to a much later American approach that produced victories in the Civil War and in World War II, and it was Jeffery Amherst, his subordinates and his “American Army” of British regulars who first unleashed this way of war in North America.
The article includes a video interview with Sweeney.

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