Sometimes we have no idea what we’re talking about

When not teaching and serving, I’m trying to get some researching done on the side. The small chunk I’ve been working on of late is examining how contemporaries discussed the surrender of the French garrison at the citadel of Tournai in 1709. Reminder to self: this takes forever if you have 100+ accounts to go through (and that’s only for Tournai).

It’s an interesting surrender for numerous reasons which I won’t get into. But if you do bother to read through enough capitulation texts (beyond Tournai as well), dissect discussion of the capitulation process in various contemporary treatises, and peruse discussion of specific surrenders in the participants’ correspondence, in the contemporary newspapers and prints, and in the histories of the war, you start to see some patterns. So when you’ve immersed yourself in the primary accounts, you just have to cringe when you come across something like this, from Archdeacon William Coxe’s 19C multi-volume biography of Marlborough (v2:427):

The Allies “…forced at length the commandant to surrender at discretion. The two generals, respecting the bravery of the garrison, mitigated the hardship of their lot, by permitting them to march out with the honours of war, retaining their swords and baggage, on the condition of leaving behind them their other arms and colours. They were to return to France, and not to serve till an equal number of prisoners, captured from the allies, were restored in exchange. On the 3d of September the gate of the citadel was delivered to the confederates, and on the 5th the garrison was conducted to Condé.”

The problem, if you happened to read an exchange in the comments on a previous post, is that Coxe has unfortunately butchered contemporary categories almost beyond recognition. As I explained in that exchange, contemporaries c. 1700 viewed a garrison’s ultimate fate as one of two broad possibilities. First was the possibility of a successful garrison defense, retaining the fortress and forcing the besiegers to abandon their attacks. A rare beast for the War of the Spanish Succession. More likely, a fortress would be forced to surrender. In this case, the garrison could receive any one of several outcomes:

  1. The garrison could be given an “honorable” surrender (the standard phrasing used), which meant that a variety of symbolic “marks of honor” would be granted the garrison upon its evacuation – things like drums beating, flags flying, &c. Most importantly, the garrison would be allowed to return to action by rejoining their field army.
  2. Alternately, the garrison could be denied their status as free combatants, and taken prisoner. Within this broad imprisoned fate were several important gradations, however. If a garrison was “taken prisoner”, the capitulation might dictate that the garrison be exchanged immediately, or the capitulation might remain mute on this point, which meant that the garrison might instead linger until a later point. Sometimes prisoners might be allowed some of the marks of honor.
  3. Distinct, however from a garrison taken prisoner, was one taken “at discretion”. Hard-pressed defenders taken at discretion still ended up prisoners, it’s true, but taken “at discretion” was the early modern equivalent of unconditional surrender. This was a far more shameful way to be captured, and more dangerous, for their treatment was technically at the discretion of the commander. There was, in other words, no capitulation document that provided written protection for the garrison (or almost never – like I said, these things are complicated). Nevertheless, contemporaries made clear distinctions between defenders taken prisoners and those taken at discretion (unless of course one side wanted to inflate their own honor by blurring the lines – it gets complicated). So while there’s definitely a fair amount of gray, it’s completely confusing for Coxe to say that the garrison was taken at discretion yet they were given the honors of war. It’s possible there may have been some garrison somewhere that received such mixed terms, but I’ve yet to see one, and this certainly wasn’t the case with Tournai. Keeping (only) their swords and baggage was a significant step down from being allowed the standard marks of honor – I don’t think contemporaries even referred to “swords and baggage” as “marks of honor” (though I’d have to check to be sure).
  4. The worst fate of all was to be put to the sword. Defenders that resisted to the bitter end would likely be slaughtered in the breach or in the streets. This fate became increasingly rare as the 17C progressed.

In case you weren’t yet confused with the above categories, I provide my confusing visualization of how this all played out in the Low Countries during the Spanish Succession war (a diagram for my paper presentation created, I should note, while at the Charlotte airport a mere three hours before my presentation):

Siege End States1

So what Coxe has done is give me whiplash. First, contemporaries were quite explicit that Tournai’s garrison was not taken “at discretion” – they earned a slightly more honorable fate than that, though not particularly honorable all the same. Coxe is partially correct when he says they were allowed to march out with “honours of war”, but he muddies the point with his use of the definitive article. “The honors of war” was an oft-used phrase at the time, but being given “the honors of war” while being denied arms and flags would have made little sense to contemporaries. In short, Tournai’s surrender was largely shameful for the garrison: they had defended far more briefly than might be expected given their fortifications, and their initial demands for a truly “honorable” surrender (free evacuation, all the honors of war) was rejected, only for them to abjectly accept the besieger’s harsh conditions within three days. It gets even more confusing (and interesting) when it comes to the garrison’s actual evacuation, but I need to save something for the inevitable book chapter/article. (For readers who care, it looks like the conference organizers may try to publish something off of the World of the Siege conference.)

Yet this leaves us with a problem. Coxe was born in 1748, and therefore lived as an adult through several of Europe’s wars of the late 18C and early 19C, all of which were covered in the British press. So why didn’t he know the difference between prisoners/discretion, and between the various marks of honor? Had these conventions changed by the end of the century? (Just what I need, the suggestion that I have to look at even later discussions of surrender conventions. Ugh.) Or maybe the Archdeacon was a clueless pointy-headed prelate, armchair quarterbacking without an understanding of the conventions of a previous generation? Or was he just being literary and trampling historical understanding in the process?

So I’m not sure what the lesson is, other than to pay closer attention to the language used by contemporaries. But that’s a good lesson to start with.


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