Friday, October 24, 2008

Alexander Rose's "American Rifle: A Biography"

Born in the United States, Alexander Rose was raised in Australia and Britain. A military historian and former journalist, he is the author of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, and his writing has appeared in the New York Observer, the Washington Post, Studies in Intelligence, and many other publications.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Rifle: A Biography, a reported the following:
Truth to tell, I was a mite worried about the “page 99” challenge. Would I fail Ford Madox Ford’s famous (and feared) test?

So it was with no little relief that when I leafed to the relevant page of American Rifle: A Biography I discovered that it was, as page 99s go, not a bad one.

It turns out that I was discussing the early nineteenth-century formation of the national myth of the American Rifleman, his unerring aim, and his magnificent weapon—the so-called Kentucky rifle. Just as Hollywood today influences our perceptions, so then it was showbusiness that performed that role.

Traditionally, riflemen had been regarded as ornery, uncouth backwoods folk. Among army officers, they were seen as undisciplined and singularly unsuited to the military life. They preferred their soldiers to carry smoothbored muskets and stay in line as they were ordered. The rifle—which was slow to load but devastatingly accurate in the hands of experts—suffered from a reputation as being a frontiersman’s weapon; the musket, on the other hand, could be loaded quickly and used by raw recruits. The former was the arm of the individual; the latter, of the masses. One exemplified marksmanship; the other, firepower.

Following Andrew Jackson’s victory in the War of 1812 against the British at New Orleans, the rifle enjoyed an “image makeover.” Jackson himself was a backwoodsman and his triumph was popularly attributed to the riflemen in his ragtag force that had put paid to the professional, disciplined legions of redcoats confronting him.

I’ll pick up the story on page 99, where we find Noel Ludlow, a theatrical impresario performing at a New Orleans music hall, keeping the locals entertained with a rousing song. Recently, his brother had sent him a copy of “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a patriotic broadside written by Samuel Woodworth (now better known for “The Old Oaken Bucket”). Ludlow then set it to the music of “Miss Baily,” a catchy tune from a comic opera, Love Laughs at Locksmiths. As Ludlow remembered:

I dressed myself in a buckskin hunting-shirt and leggins ... and with moccasins on my feet, and an old slouched hat on my head, and a rifle on my shoulder, I presented myself before the audience. I was saluted with loud applause of hands and feet, and a prolonged whoop, or howl, such as Indians give when they are especially pleased. I sang the first verse, and these extraordinary manifestations of delight were louder and longer than before; but when I came to the following lines:

“But Jackson he was wide awake, and

wasn’t scared with trifles,

For well he knew what aim we take

with our Kentucky rifles;

So he marched us down to Cypress Swamp;

The ground was low and mucky;

There stood John Bull, in martial pomp,

But here was old Kentucky.”

As I delivered the last five words, I took my old hat off my head, threw it upon the ground, and brought my rifle to the position of taking aim. At that instant came a shout and an Indian yell from the inmates of the pit, and a tremendous applause from other portions of the house, the whole lasting for nearly a minute ... I had to sing the song three times that night before they would let me off.

The rifleman, once snobbishly looked down upon as a brute, had been transformed into the very model of an American, and his firearm now represented independence, hardiness, and patriotism, not backwoods wildness. And it was all thanks to Noel Ludlow, the Ethel Merman of the Mississippi.
Read an excerpt from American Rifle, and learn more about the author and his work at Alexander Rose's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue