Whether well-versed in the history of the U.S. Army or a novice to the subject, John A. Haymond’s The American Soldier, 1866–1916: The Enlisted Man and the Transformation of the United States Army is an effective, engaging, and thoughtful work of historical interpretation and writing. Haymond, who served in the U.S. military for twenty-one years, shows his ability as a historian to examine and challenge preconceived notions while exhibiting a realistic, almost personal perspective for the soldiers who fought and died for their country often with little or no recognition for their service and sacrifice. Most notably, though, Haymond demonstrates his keen ability to inform his audience through thorough and careful research that expresses multiple perspectives while drawing unbiased and valid conclusions.
Covering fifty years of the history of the U.S. Army, Haymond looks deep into the soldier’s experience throughout the period of Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. Rather than rely second-hand accounts, Haymond uses the personal narratives of soldiers, giving a voice to the men who actually experienced this history. In this way, the American soldier is brought to life through his own thoughts, feelings, fears, and anxieties, but is not glorified in those expressions. Haymond does not hide the good or the bad and expresses no personal bias in his interpretation, but instead is forthright and honest showing the soldiers simply as they were—human and fallible. Haymond then uses his own knowledge and expertise of military history and law to examine the real context of the life of a U.S. soldier.
In addition to covering a broad swath of American U.S. Army history, Haymond takes the time to pull apart the well-known but not fully understand events of this time period. This includes events such as the Fetterman Fight, The Battle of Washita River, The Battle of Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, and the Brownsville Affair. In each case, Haymond dispels misconceptions by first acknowledging those misconceptions and then examining the sources to reveal a more nuanced realistic view of the events. It is both eye-opening and intriguing to discover what happened and why rather than accepting historical bias and giving in to modern revisionism, something Haymond appropriately avoids.
Ultimately, Haymond succeeds in conveying the history of the U.S. Army in an engaging and informative manner free from bias or misconceptions. But more importantly, he does so through the eyes of those who, until now, have been overlooked—the eyes of the soldiers who experienced this history. It was, as one soldier pointed out, “not very pleasant,” but it was real and it should not be forgotten or taken for granted. Haymond shows us why.