Trenton Cole Jones received his PhD in History from Johns Hopkins University in 2014 and is presently a Hench Post-Dissertation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. Cole was just awarded an NEH fellowship at the New York Historical Society for next year and has also been hired as an assistant professor of early American history at Purdue University. While on fellowship at AAS, Cole is revising his dissertation, “‘Deprived of Their Liberty’: Enemy Prisoners and the Culture of War in Revolutionary America.” He recently sat down with Past is Present to discuss his project and the challenges of revising a dissertation.
Past is Present: Will you describe your current project for us?
Trenton Cole Jones: Certainly. My book project, which is a revised version of my doctoral dissertation, is entitled Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Radicalization of the American Revolution. This project investigates how Revolutionary Americans treated their captured enemies. I originally came to this project in 2008 when the treatment, or mistreatment, of prisoners captured during the “War on Terror” was a hot button issue politically. At the time, politicians and pundits delighted in contrasting the treatment of enemy captives under the Bush administration with what they claimed was the humanitarian way of war practiced by our founding fathers during the War for Independence. Prominent historians followed this trend by emphasizing the flagrant prisoner abuses committed by the British armed forces, while largely neglecting the practices of the Revolutionaries. But as I dug deeper into the question, a much more complicated picture emerged. I uncovered a process of radicalization that transformed the conduct of the war and imperiled prisoners on both sides. My project analyzes this process by examining prisoner treatment over the course of the conflict within the context of the contemporary European culture of war. I conclude that the American Revolution was far more violent than scholars have appreciated, and that the experience of the war and its violence played a significant role in the social and political transformations of the Revolutionary era. In short, by examining how the American treatment of enemy prisoners changed over the course of the period, my book positions the war at the forefront of our narratives about the American Revolution.
Past is Present: Which historians have inspired you?
Cole: That is a very difficult question because my intellectual debts are so many. Any young scholar of the American Revolution stands on the shoulders of giants: Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Gary Nash, Alfred Young, and John Shy to name but a few who have profoundly influenced my thinking. So I will answer the question another way, by pointing to two historians who have most influenced the way I write history. I first encountered Edmund Morgan’s 1975 American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia as an undergraduate. This book, more than any other, inspired me to take up the study of early America. His magisterial narrative recreates the evolving world of colonial Virginia with evocative detail and elegant simplicity. But it is the powerful argument skillfully embedded within his narrative that continues to inspire me, even as more recent works have nuanced and revised his central thesis. Morgan’s ability to seamlessly blend argument and analysis into a compelling, fast-paced, and approachable narrative is a model I strive to emulate, however inadequately.
The other historian is a scholar of Old Regime and Revolutionary France. David Bell’s work on the culture of war in Europe during the age of revolutions, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, is an example of the historian’s craft at its finest. Timely, provocative, deeply-researched, and beautifully constructed, The First Total War inspired me to investigate the complex interplay of wartime ideas and actions in my own period of study. While scholars may quibble with its ambitious title, none can deny that Bell has given us the best explanation for how one of the bloodiest wars in human history arose out of the Enlightenment’s quest for peace in perpetuity. Perhaps I am a little biased; David was one of graduate school mentors. Nonetheless, both Bell and Morgan have given me models for the type of historian I aspire to be. While historiographic intervention and rigorous analysis will always be the foundation of professional history writing, our books would be dull stuff indeed if they did not come wrapped in a good story.
Past is Present: What does the fellowship mean to you?
Cole: I consider myself extremely fortunate to hold the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship here at the AAS. This fellowship has allowed me to concentrate full-time on my research, writing, and career development. As I revise my dissertation, I have found the AAS’s resources to be immensely helpful. Whenever I need to check a citation or locate the latest monograph in the field, the AAS invariably has a copy in its collections. But my time has not all been spent writing and revising. I have also combed through numerous manuscript collections, making several important finds. I discovered that during the Revolution, Worcester was used as a depot for confining suspected New York loyalists. With a British army ensconced in New York City and another army marching south from Canada in 1777, New York authorities chose to send their suspected loyalists to Worcester for safe-keeping. The New Yorkers promised to reimburse Worcester’s Committee of Safety for the prisoners’ expenses, but years later the debt had still not been settled. Documents like these shed light on just how disorganized and decentralized prisoner administration was during the conflict, as well as driving home the fact that the War for Independence was also a civil war.
Past is Present: What would be your ideal find here at AAS?
Cole: As for my ideal find, I still dream of coming across a detailed roster of prisoners held in one of the main American prison camps, such as the Rutland camp located near Worcester. It would make my life much easier if I had good information on the identities of the prisoners held in these camps and some information about the length of their captivity and their rates of mortality and morbidity. The Revolutionaries were pretty bad at keeping these types of records, and I have only found a few isolated rosters for prisons in Pennsylvania. I have had to rely on British records to fill in the blanks. These documents, however, are somewhat unreliable as the administrators who compiled the lists were operating from second-hand information. Thus they might suggest a soldier was in American custody when he had in fact deserted or died. Nonetheless, these records do give us some idea of the total number of prisoners taken by the Americans during the eight-year war: over sixteen thousand men.
Although the research opportunities were what originally attracted me to this fellowship, I have found the intellectual community here at the AAS to be the most fulfilling and stimulating part of my fellowship so far. The library’s staff is deeply invested in the scholarly study of early America and all have been unflaggingly helpful and encouraging. The plethora of historians, literary scholars, artists and art historians, and poets and playwrights who have come through the fellowship program since I arrived have all contributed significantly to my thinking about my research project and early America in general. The formal fellows’ seminar has been immensely productive, but I have found some of the most invigorating discussions have occurred while making dinner or sipping coffee in the morning. It has been a privilege and a delight to get to know so many scholars with such diverse interests.
As a junior scholar, I have found the most rewarding aspect of the fellowship to be the mentorship provided by the senior scholars in residence: Steven Bullock, Richard and Claudia Bushman, Sean Moore, Melanie Kiechle, and Carl Keyes. Steve Bullock in particular has really taken me under his wing and has provided me countless hours of guidance, encouragement, and critique. Few postdoctoral fellowships can boast this type of personalized mentorship. I am extremely grateful for the collaboration and camaraderie of my fellow fellows at the AAS.
Read the whole interview here!