In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Soldiers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Resources
  • Primary Sources
  • War and Society
  • Recruitment
  • Soldiers for Hire
  • Training and Professionalism
  • Leadership and Motivation
  • Soldiers and Strategy
  • Tactics and Technology
  • Battle
  • Treatment of Enemies and Non-Combatants
  • Social World
  • Health
  • Demobilization and Welfare

Atlantic History Soldiers
Matthew P. Dziennik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0261


No history of warfare is complete without an appreciation of those who physically conduct the fighting. The history of soldiers is a human history and, while analyses of tactics and weapon systems are essential to military history, it is the human element that makes histories of soldiering so compelling. Although soldiers have always been the most crucial element of battle, what a soldier is and how he or she is defined has rarely been consistent across time and space. Historians of warfare in the Atlantic world, from the Renaissance to the mid-19th century, have been at the forefront of interpreting soldiering as part of a much wider political, cultural, and intellectual milieu. Atlantic history’s focus on the movement of peoples and ideas has given investigations of the military profession a marked prominence in the literature. The spatial and temporal range of Atlantic history has allowed historians to examine multiple forms of soldiering, embracing non-Western and non-state models of military activity as well as the better-known Western shift from feudal to professional armies. Atlantic world historians have also embraced the “new military history” and its insistence that the army is a social institution tied to wider social currents and value systems. This article examines how historians have dealt with the three crucial questions regarding soldiering in the Atlantic world: the origins, identities, and experiences of soldiers; the social and political systems that brought men to the army; and how soldiers interacted with (and indeed shaped) the political and cultural world around them. It is in response to this last question that some of the most innovative work has been done. No longer seen as mere cannon fodder for the game of kings, the soldier is now seen as a reflection and often progenitor of wider changes in the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

General overviews of soldiering in this period traditionally focus on western Europe. The relationship between military developments and state building (reviewed in War and Society) tended to normalize western European state making to the detriment of other regions of the globe. Corvisier 1979 and Anderson 1988, for example, provide overviews of western European warfare with an emphasis on state making. Fortunately, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this bias began to disappear, and it is now possible to find several excellent overviews of warfare and soldiering outside of western Europe. Black 1999 offers a robust challenge to Eurocentrism by reviewing the relationship between warfare and politics across ten regions of the globe. Regional studies of non-Western warfare are also gaining ground. Hassig 1992 uses a warfare and society framework to similarly explore how military activity shaped the rise of Mesoamerican states. Thornton 1999 provides an essential guide for Atlantic Africa while Steele 1995 and Starkey 1998 focus on North America, albeit with an emphasis on military exchange rather than state building. For those still keen on Western approaches to warfare, Showalter and Astore 2007 provides an up-to-date volume that focuses specifically on the soldier and their experiences of warfare in the period.

  • Anderson, M. S. War and Society in the Old Regime, 1618–1789. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1988.

    An excellent overview that places greatest emphasis on the transition from the largely indiscriminate violence of the medieval period to the more regulated emergence of state armies and rigid frontiers by the late 18th century.

  • Black, Jeremy, ed. War in the Early Modern World, 1450–1815. London: University College Press, 1999.

    An important challenge to Eurocentrism in military history. Features ten chapters by leading military historians and places emphasis on the relationship between military developments and state building. The volume covers much of the globe though the essays on west Africa, Europe, North America, and Central America will be of most interest to Atlanticists.

  • Corvisier, Andre. Armies and Societies in Europe, 1494–1789. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.

    Originally published in French in 1976, this book was crucial in outlining the wider impact of political and socioeconomic change on European warfare. Includes extensive coverage of the formation of armies, the extension of state control, and the social composition of the armies of the ancien régime.

  • Hassig, Ross. War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520077348.001.0001

    Covering almost three thousand years of history until the Spanish arrival in the Americas, Hassig shows that the growth of Mesoamerican states depended on the same factors that influenced state expansion in Europe. Topics reviewed include weapons technology and political and military organization. Hassig concludes that strong military activity was essential to state growth.

  • Showalter, Dennis, and William J. Astore. Soldiers’ Lives Through History: The Early Modern World. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.

    Part of a wider and important series. Brings together traditional examinations of a soldier’s recruitment, training, and weapons with a critical understanding of the cultural approach to military history. Chapters are arranged thematically and cover the period from 1494 to 1789.

  • Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815. London: University College London Press, 1998.

    A helpful overview of warfare between European and indigenous peoples in the Americas. Effective in its emphasis on the exchange of military theories and tactics between both sides.

  • Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Invaluable investigation of the adaption of soldiers to new technologies and ways of war. Steele dismisses the assumed supremacy of European tactics and technology by highlighting how both European and indigenous forces relied upon the skills of the other to fight in North America.

  • Thornton, John K. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800. London: University College London Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203500446

    The best single volume on warfare in west Africa. Chapters are divided by region with a final chapter outlining links between warfare and the Atlantic slave trade.

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