Pilgrims In Armor

Amongst the myths of the Pilgrims is the ideal that they were peaceful folks who never quarreled with anyone and never feared an attack because they were friends with the natives tribes. Furthermore, they lived in their own little bubble of safety, immune from the dangers of the outside world.

Let’s do some myth busting! We already discovered that two ships originally left England and that the Pilgrims knew how to do more than pray and eat. Today we explore the reality of the Pilgrim’s world and how the men were prepared to defend their families from assault.

Thistoric cannonhe Pilgrims’ World

It was not peaceful. (But then when has this world ever been peaceful?)

1559-1648 – War in the Netherlands. This religious and politically sparked war lasted 89 years, but there was a period of truce. Interestingly, that truce was between 1609-1621, which was the exact period when the Separatists (Pilgrims) sought religious refuge in that country.

1588 – Spanish Armada. As part of an on-going struggle with religious roots between Spain and England, a large convoy of Spanish warships set out to invade the island nation. However, fireships and fierce storms prevented any successful landing, leaving Britain free to continue supporting Protestantism and semi-political freedom.

1588 -1590 – The War of the Three Henrys. Religious conflict plagued France as Catholics and Huguenots struggled to tolerate each other. The War of the Three Henrys erupted when three men (all named Henry, in case you hadn’t guessed) claimed the French Throne. In the end, Henry of Navarre triumphed and issued the Edict of Nantes, allowing a period of religious freedom in France.

1618-1648 – The Thirty Years War. Beginning with a religious conflict, this war dragged through the decades and involved many nations of Europe. It is generally acknowledged that there were four periods of the war: The Bohemian Conflict, The Danish Conflict, The Swedish Intervention, and The French Intervention. The war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (an event which is usually the end of Western Civ. 1 classes in college).

Pilgrims in a Hostile Land

From 1620-1622 Plymouth Colony did not have a fort for defense. The settlers were busy just trying to survive, and, since they had established peaceful relations with the local native tribe, they had no real reason to build a fortress.

It should be acknowledged that before the Peace Treaty in spring of 1621 the Pilgrims were afraid of attacks from the tribesmen, especially because they had had some strange encounters during the early exploring in December 1620. When the men were searching for the right location for the settlement, they went out in their armor and carrying their weapons.

Now, in 1622 – the year after the First Thanksgiving – a warning message from an unfriendly tribe and rumors of a massacre in Virginia, prompted the Pilgrims to build a stockade around their town, post sentries, and have the men form several militia units. In the following years, Plymouth was never directly attacked, but their militia aided other settlements and also acted as a “police force” to help keep the peace.

An artist's image of Captain Myles Standish. It is not confirmed if the image is based on a real painting from the 1600's.

An artist’s image of Captain Myles Standish. It is not confirmed if the image is based on a real painting from the 1600’s.

The Military Captain at Plymouth

Meet Myles Standish, the military leader of Plymouth colony. While much of Captain Standish’s life prior to 1620 is mysterious, we know that he did have a military background. It is very possible that he led English soldiers during the War in the Netherlands.

By 1620, Myles Standish was married, highly educated, and respected in military matters. Captain and Mrs. Standish were “strangers” – they were not going to America to escape religious persecution. Once in the New World, Captain Standish led the exploring groups and probably directed his comrades toward choosing a town site on elevated, defensible ground. During the winter, Mrs. Standish died and the captain was one of only two Pilgrims who did not get sick.

When the Wampanoag tribesmen assembled with the Pilgrims to sign the peace treaty, Captain Standish also made sure he suitable impressed everyone with his little militia and his cannon.

In later years, Captain Standish led the Plymouth militia to defend other settlements from attacks and represented the colony on business trips to England. His military skill proved essential to the success of the colony and his leadership abilities made him a trusted resident of Plymouth.

Reproduction armor (breastplate and backpiece) hanging on the wall of a house in Plimoth Plantation Living History Center

Reproduction armor (breastplate and backpiece) hanging on the wall of a house in Plimoth Plantation Living History Center

The Armor & Weapons

So what did the Plymouth militia use for weaponry? What type of armor did they wear?

The armor of the early 1600’s was fairly useless and even dangerous on the European battlefields. (Bullets were penetrating the armor and then bouncing of the back-pieces and sides – think of a marble inside a tin can and you’ll have the unhappy idea.) However, armor was useful in the New World as protection against arrows and hatchets. Many of the Pilgrim men had breastplates and helmets which they would’ve worn for their military demonstrations, when they stood sentry, and when they defended other settlements.

Swords were a symbol of status in this era. We know that Myles Standish carried a special sword that he had obtained somewhere in his European travels.

Daggers were common. But don’t get the idea that the Pilgrims had them up their sleeves, ready to murder each other; that’s inaccurate! A dagger was like a pocket knife back then, and men carried them to assist in day-to-day tasks.

By the 1600’s, cannon were in wide-spread use on European battlefields, though they still lacked range and directed effectiveness. The Pilgrims did have cannons at Plymouth, and those weapons were a source of intimidation to unfriendly native tribes.

The Pilgrims would’ve used matchlocks and maybe flintlocks. Both types of guns had a chamber for a few grains of gunpowder which would be ignited either by a match-cord or a spark from a gun hammer striking flint. That spark would ignite the gunpowder grains and start the reaction inside the gun that was necessary to send the ball out the muzzle. The firearms were not known for great accuracy which equals “battlefield safety” or “frustrating hunting trip.”


The Pilgrims did not come to America as conquistadors. They came willing to work and build a new settlement, but they knew they might have to defend themselves. Thus, under the leadership of Captain Myles Standish, the Pilgrim men prepared to protect their families and new homes if necessary.

Wars and weaponry were not foreign concepts to the Pilgrims. Europe was filled with conflict and these people knew (and possibly experienced) that first-hand. By coming to the New World, the Pilgrims left the religious and political wars behind, but they understood the importance of a militaristic presence to ensure their own safety.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Had you ever considered the armor, weapons, and defense strategies the Pilgrims used? What lessons might we learn that are applicable to the our lives in the 21st Century?


Jane Austen’s Military

Hey, step aside, Napoleon. We could call this era “Jane Austen’s Era.”

Ladies, if you’ve been suffering through the last three weeks of Napoleon, army organization, and battles, then hopefully this post will make amends. Gentlemen, don’t run the other direction just yet, we’re actually going to talk about the military in Jane Austen’s novels.

PrideandPrejudice - meeting Mr. WickhamIn case you’re not familiar with Jane Austen, she was single woman not in possession of a large fortune, but she loved writing. She wrote stories set in her contemporary world and addressed with irony such human qualities or flaws as prejudice, pride, sensibility, lack of sense, vanity, silly matchmakers, broken hearts, and persuasion. Her novels are considered classic English literature and are great fun to read. (My brothers might tell you something different, but quickly moving on…)

I have read and analyzed (probably over-analyzed) Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion. Austen wrote a couple other books, and though I’m familiar with  their plots, I decided not to include them into today’s discussion since I haven’t actually read them yet. (If you’ve read them and want to add your observations on the theme, please go ahead and add a comment.)


The Military in Jane Austen’s Novels

One of the great things about Austen’s writing is that it’s set in the era she lived in and she was familiar with the customs and culture of her day. This adds great historical value to the novels.

Listing from the four books mentioned above, here are the main references or characters connected to the military.

Pride & Prejudice: George Wickham – a scoundrel who’s hiding out in the militia, and then a friend buys him a commission in the regular army after he does something really bad. Militia Regiment – a regiment is quartered in the local town and the officers frequently attending gatherings at the local residents’ homes and flirt with the girls. Camp at Brighton – there’s a large training camp near the seaside town of Brighton – not much else is specified other than it was “a whole camp full of soldiers.” Colonel Fitzwilliam – the man with no official first name, poor fellow. But Colonel what’s-his-name Fitzwilliam officially rescues the reputation of the military in this novel. He’s the fourth son of an earl, has a very gentleman-like manner, and is a responsible guardian of Miss Darcy.

Sense & Sensibility: Colonel Brandon – a silent bachelor, age thirty-five, and fond of flannel waistcoats. He served in the British army and was sent to the East Indies. Not much else is known about his service, but he knew how to shoot a pistol since he fights a duel in the story.

Emma: Set in a quiet country village presided over by sweet, well-intentioned matchmaking “princess”, this book doesn’t have much connection to Britain’s military. Captain Weston is the sole representative. He was from the little village of Highbury and enlisted in the militia, but not much regarding his service is known.

British Captain, Napoleonic Era

Persuasion: Captain Frederick Wentworth – the handsome antagonist/protagonist depending on which part of the novel you’re in. He was a young lieutenant when he met the heroine and had little wealth, but seven years later after capturing a few prize vessels he’s a very wealthy man. Admiral Croft – a retired commander come ashore; his wife sailed with him and they had been many places, including the East Indies. Captain Benwick –  a recently promoted captain who waited many years for promotion and fortune. Captain Harville – a captain living in Lyme and presumably waiting for a new command; it is implied he may have been in ill health or recovering from an injury. (This book has many references to sea voyages and adventures and I cannot possibly list all of them here.)

A Few Historical Things to Learn From “Storybook Military”

1. It was a “good” career Only the eldest son inherited the family property, so what’s a younger son to do? Colonel Fitzwilliam (fourth son of an earl) and Colonel Brandon (second son) were both packed off into the army, presumably with purchased commissions. Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who won the Battle of Waterloo, was also a younger son and started his military career with purchased commissions.

2. It was a hiding place for the bad guys Mr. Wickham is the example here, but it was more common than we’d like to believe. A very angry General Wellesley once said of his troops, “We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers…” (Ah, new epitaph for Wickham?)

3. The English country world did not revolve around Napoleon and his battles Think of the book Emma, which was published around 1815. The characters do not seem to express interest in the world outside their safe and secure little area. Perhaps the gentlemen discuss the news in the papers when the ladies aren’t present, but on the whole there’s a sense that the big battles and wars with Napoleon don’t matter to these people. This is likely a good reflection on the feelings of this class of people.

4. Sometimes it paid…and sometimes it didn’t It is interesting to note than none of Austen’s characters seem to make much money in the army. Colonel Brandon and Mr. Weston come back to property, either inheriting the estate or purchasing a comfortable house. Colonel Fitzwilliam cannot support a family with his income and must abandon his interest in Miss Elizabeth since she also is without fortune. So I guess the lesson is: the army didn’t pay really well and this is supported with real historical evidence. Now, the navy on the other hand…Admiral Croft had enough savings to rent a baronet’s home, Captain Wentworth and Captain Benwick made large fortunes…but it’s implied (and historically accurate) that they are lucky characters. Captain Harville has been cast ashore with half-pay, not a pleasant experience for a man with a family to support.

British uniforms, Napoleonic Era5. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the uniforms looked very handsome. In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet admits that even she “liked a redcoat” and she’s referring to a handsome uniform. Like these to the right.

Even Captain Wentworth was acknowledged by the overly-particular baronet when he appeared at the concert in Bath. I think it’s highly probably in the cultural setting that he was in dress uniform that evening.

But, a word of caution from Miss Austen, be sure of a man’s character before admiring him or his uniform –  you do not want Miss Lydia’s fate.


Jane Austen had a good sense of the feelings of the “common” people in her world. Her characters and the military themes woven into her novels are accurate when compared to historical accounts and real people of the time.

And you have a “historical excuse” to read her books again. Right? It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s books cannot be read too many times.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Who is your favorite “military character” in Jane Austen’s novels? And why?



Organizing A Modern Army

Organization. Does that word delight or terrify you? Right now, it inspires both feelings in me – I love it when things are organized, but I’m not looking forward to cleaning up my stacks of books and piles of paper scattered all over the house. Whether you love or hate (or just can’t decide) about Napoleon, you’ll be forced to admit that he was an organizer. His revolutionary structuring of his armies and headquarters staff have influenced the modern military and even corporate office organization.

This week, we’re discussing the troops and organization of Napoleon’s Grande Armee (that’s French for “Great Army.”)

French Imperial Guards, Napoleonic Era

The Beginnings

Napoleon’s Grande Armee was the most organized fighting force in Europe up to its era.  It battled the armies of the Austrians, Prussians, British, Russians, and Spanish during the Empire years (1803ish to 1814).

The French Grande Armee started as Napoleon’s army for the invasion of England, but when that conquest was canceled (the floating barges just ain’t gonna work – take note, General Burnside) the force just moved east and started fighting the Austrians and Prussians. Although many of the original troops were replaced with new conscripts as the years dragged on, the name Grande Armee is generally used when referring to Napoleonic French armies.

The Organization

The Grande Armee was remarkable because its organization allowed flexibility in campaigning. It was divided into 5-7 corps, each with an average size of 20,000-30,000 men. Each corps, commanded by a marshal or a major general, was self-sufficient, although they usually worked together in campaigns.

Napoleon allowed his corps commanders a lot of freedom, but if they did not comply with his orders or do as he wanted, he would severely scold them and occasionally remove them from command.  The idea of dividing an army into “independent” corps was revolutionary and Napoleon’s system of army organization was eventually adopted by many nations during the nineteenth century.

Within the Corps were divisions of infantry (foot soldiers), cavalry (horsemen), and artillery (loud cannons.) Each divisions had permanent administrative departments and operational units and were commanded by division generals.

The divisions were further divided by into units with specific military tasks. For example, an infantry regiment would have companies of basic “boring” infantry, grenadiers (known for their fierce fighting tactics), and light infantry trained for marksmanship.

Cavalry units formed about 1/5 to 1/6 of the Grande Armee’s forces, but Artillery was Emperor Napoleon’s favorite. He established the practicality of Horse Artillery, which was known for moving swiftly across and around battlefields, repositioning and keeping the enemy guessing.

Painting of French Cavalry in 1807 (Public Domain)

Painting of French Cavalry in 1807 (Public Domain)

French military regiments were given flags and Imperial Eagles. The Eagles were based off the ancient Roman standards and regiments vowed to defend them to the death. (No, they weren’t real birds; they were made of gold.)

“Napoleon’s Spoiled Children”

The Imperial Guard, practically its own corps, was the Grande Armee’s elite fighting force, Napoleon’s personal guard, and his especial delight.  All troops within the guard were hand-picked and had to have fought in at least 1, but preferably 3-5 campaigns, be completely loyal to Napoleon, and cited for gallant action. These unit were known for “staying in reserve” and could get away with bending military rules, leading to awe, envy, and ridicule from the rest of the army.

Military Staff

Gone were the days of staff officers in the position because of their nobility. (Sure, Napoleon appointed friends and family members all over his empire, but they had to get the job done, or they were done.) Napoleon created a military staff system which was revolutionary for all its functions; it was invented, organized and commanded by his commander, Marshal Berthier.  The system of staff organization has been copied by numerous organizations and its basic form is still used today in modern militaries, police and fire departments, and businesses.

The Staff of the Grande Armee, also called the Imperial Headquarters, was divided into three main sections: 1) Napoleon’s Military Household, which included Napoleon’s personal messengers, spies, and advisors, 2) the Army General Headquarters, which was under the chief of staff and handled all reports, orders, and information without Napoleon’s intervention, and 3) the Intendant General’s Department, which was controlled by the quartermaster and managed all the administrative and logistical problems for the army.


Engineers handled the clearing of roads, making of bridges, and kept the Grande Army moving in hostile territory. Supply trains followed the army carrying 8 days of rations, but the troops were encouraged to live off the land.

The French experimented with fast moving ambulance corps to quickly transport their wounded. They also tried pigeons, hot air balloons, and a visible telegraph system to improve the more traditional means of communication – couriers on horseback, drums, bugles, and flags.


The tactics employed by the Grande Armee were “flexible”, meaning they could be used by different units or combined to creating a new strategy. The French often attacked in columns, which laid a disastrous foundation for later wars with more advanced weaponry (Crimean War & American Civil War). Yes, I could write a couple of blog posts on Napoleonic Era tactics, but I’m trying not to get too carried away tonight.


Promotion in the French army was by merit alone, in theory at least.  The saying “There’s a marshal’s baton in every soldier’s knapsack” gave the idea that a common soldier could be promoted to the highest rank in the army if he did his duty and served with extreme bravery.

French Soldier Napoleonic Era


In the organization and structure of the Grand Armee, we find the basis for modern armies. The management systems introduced have also influenced many of the “command chains” in corporate offices and public safety organizations.

The Grande Armee introduced a change in military organization, tactics, or leadership during the Napoleonic Wars. The French army enjoyed years of success against their enemies; however, when its opponents had completed their reforms (many of them copied from Napoleon’s force) they proved to be difficult opponents for the Grande Armee.

Though Napoleon and his Grand Armee were eventually defeated, their legacy has continued in the organization of modern armies.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. To organize or not? That’s a question. What do you think of Napoleon’s revolutionary idea of breaking large military units into smaller, more manageable, more “flexible” units?

Ready to read about some of the great battle of the era? Come back next Friday. (And for those of you not so excited about military – I promise something about an author of the era whose initials are JA…guess if you like.)

OH, this coming week is GREEN on Gazette665 as we take a jaunt to Ireland and back in honor of St. Patrick’s Day!