Publication Date

January 31, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • United States



John W. Shy

Photo courtesy Matthew Bien

John W. Shy, professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan and a leading authority on Anglo-American military history, died on April 8, 2022, in his 91st year.

Shy graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1952 and served as a US Army officer in Japan until 1955. He returned to the United States and attended graduate school in history, earning an MA at the University of Vermont in 1957 and a PhD from Princeton University in 1961. After teaching at Princeton, he joined the Michigan history department, where he remained from 1967 until his retirement in 1995.

He was admired and honored for his sound scholarship, clear prose, and, above all, broad historical vision. His books contributed significantly to our understanding of early America. Before he published Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution (Princeton Univ. Press, 1965) and A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), scholars had seen the British army primarily as an agent of the king and Parliament and as a threat to American lives and liberties. Shy acknowledged that commanders in chief believed the king and Parliament held ultimate power in the empire, but he emphasized that British commanders sought to work with colonial legislatures and to live in harmony with the colonists. The colonists responded favorably to such treatment, if not to taxes to support the army in America or demands for quarters, transportation, and food for the soldiers. The colonists did serve alongside the regulars in defeating the French during the Seven Years’ War, in putting down an Indian uprising that threatened the mid-Atlantic colonies in 1763, and in protecting the colonies’ frontiers until regulars marched to Lexington in 1775. Until then, many colonists admired the regulars, considered them comrades in arms, and celebrated their victories over the French and Indians. Shy’s principal writings have added breadth and complexity to Anglo-American military history of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Shy was also an important member of his department. His courses were popular with undergraduates, he supervised a number of graduate students, and he served as an associate chair of his department and a member of the management committee at the university’s Clements Library—famous for its collections of rare books and manuscripts dealing with the colonial and revolutionary history of the United States. For his teaching, scholarship, and service he was twice honored by the University of Michigan with a Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award (1994) and a Distinguished Senior Lecturer Award (1996). And after his death, the university’s Military Studies Group, which he had helped found, established a fellowship and a memorial lecture in his name at the Clements.

His scholarship brought further awards and recognition from both sides of the Atlantic. Toward Lexington received the AHA’s John H. Dunning Prize in 1965, and A People Numerous and Armed merited a second, expanded edition in 1990. In 2002, he won the Society for Military History’s Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for lifetime achievements, and he delivered the society’s George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History in 2008. Beyond that, he served on the Council of the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, and on the US Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee. He was three times appointed to distinguished visiting professorships at the United States Army War College; Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris; and the University of Oxford, where he was Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History.

By temperament and intellect, Shy was remarkably well suited to the academic career that he chose. He also had the benefit of a supportive family and of a wholesome enthusiasm for sports. Although his first marriage had ended in divorce, he remained close to the children and grandchildren of that marriage—in large part because his second wife, Arlene, was a most considerate person who appreciated his love of family. She also, with time, came to understand his passion for golf and major league baseball. Shy is survived by Arlene, his daughters Elizabeth Manderen and Jennifer Shy, and four grandchildren. His was a life very well lived.

Ira Gruber
Rice University

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