Monthly Archives: July 2008

I don’t think we’re in Plymouth anymore, Toto

I’m getting ready to teach an undergraduate course on colonial America this fall.  That means I’ve been digging back into Alan Taylor’s fantastic American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001).    I first read it when I was about to start grad school to prepare for a readings seminar in early America.  To me, “colonial America” meant a handful of English settlers hanging for dear life onto the eastern seaboard.

I was in for a surprise.

I was over one hundred pages in before the first Englishman planted his foot in Virginia, there was a whole chapter on the Great Plains, and to top it all off, there was a final trip around the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Pacific.

As Taylor puts it, “To write a history of colonial America used to be easier, because the human cast and the geographic stage were both considered so much smaller” (p. x).  Learning and teaching about colonial America used to be easier, too.  If you find yourself wanting to do either, Taylor’s American Colonies is the best place to start.  Have a peek.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography

Pivot of the Revolution

Several years ago I went to a small movie theater with a friend of mine for a repeat viewing of The Patriot.  After the movie ended, we ran into one of our former teachers outside, who was a serious history buff.  He told me that he’d enjoyed the movie, but he didn’t know the Revolutionary War was such a big deal in South Carolina.

A lot of people don’t know that, although I suspect the number is getting smaller, thanks to the aforementioned movie and a number of recent books and documentaries.  The war was, in fact, a very big deal in South Carolina; it’s quite possible that more combat actions took place in the Palmetto State than in any of the other twelve.  In fact, after 1778, the Revolution was basically a southern show.  Frustrated by inconclusive campaigning in the North, and faced with France’s entry into the conflict, the British “Southern Strategy” depended on recruiting and training Loyalist auxiliaries in the Carolinas and Georgia to make up for dwindling Redcoat numbers.  This strategy worked well for a while; British forces won a number of important engagements through the summer of 1780.  It wasn’t until early 1781 that reorganized American forces drove Cornwallis out of the Carolinas and toward his ultimate fate at Yorktown.  The South, and particularly the Carolinas, was the pivot on which the whole war turned.  One historian who understands that is John Ferling, who emphasizes the critical nature of the southern war in his outstanding military history of the Revolution, Almost a Miracle.   

So why is the war in the South so poorly remembered?  I think a number of factors are at work.  First, when it comes to the issue of military history and popular memory, size matters.  Many of the nasty little guerilla fights in the South were tiny in comparison to some of the big, set-piece battles around New York and Philadelphia.  King’s Mountain, for example, was critical in showing the folly of relying on Carolina Tory militia, but only about 1,000 men were engaged on each side. 

Second, I think that it’s difficult to associate the South with the Revolution because the Civil War dominates the region’s history and identity.  Since the South, the Confederacy, and the Civil War are synonymous for so many people, there isn’t room for another war in the popular imagination.

Third is name recognition.  Washington defined the Revolution.  It’s probably no accident that Yorktown is both the most famous southern locale of the Revolution and the only event in that theater in which Washington played a prominent role.  Few men did as much to win the war as Nathanael Greene, commander in the South during the critical months of 1781, but I’d be surprised if one in ten Americans could tell you who he was.

Finally, and probably most disturbingly, American amnesia about the Revolution in the South is symptomatic of amnesia about the Revolution as a whole.  There’s no getting around the fact that it remains an understudied war.  We lack modern, thorough biographies of many significant figures; histories cite the same outdated battle studies; important questions go unasked and unanswered.  John Adams famously said that the Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people, making the war almost an afterthought.  So far, it seems America has taken him at his word.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

In which parameters are set forth

This virtual soapbox is devoted to American history, as studied by scholars, exhibited by curators, and paraded around by the general public.  My main interest is the Revolutionary era, and I spent some time at a Lincoln/Civil War site, so I’ll concentrate on those subjects here, but the whole gamut of U.S. history is fair game.

Most of my professional experience has been in museums, but I’ve also taught and my training is in conventional academic history, so this blog will hop around between the ivory tower and the hustle and bustle of public history.

I have little technogical savvy, and in fact I have a strong dislike for blogs and for post-modern communication in general.  But since I can use this to infuse the internet with a healthy dose of fuddy-duddyism, I’m making an exception for myself.

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