Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Battle of Cowpens, as presented by fifth graders

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens.  I thought some type of commemoration might be in order, so I went poking around online and found this video.  Some of the officers are a little shorter than average, but it’s more accurate than The Patriot.

I’m not sure where this school district is located, but they’re pulling out all the stops to get kids into the Revolution.  Good for them.

Some of you are no doubt horrified and outraged, and are primed and ready to inform us that this activity is not educational at all, that it fosters a sanitized view of combat and may in fact create a generation of callous warmongers.  Well, if you absolutely must, then you have my permission to click the comments link under this post’s title and moralize until you’re blue in the face.  Perhaps this sample from a Concerned Parent™ will give you some ideas to get started.  Keep in mind, however, that since we don’t know what additional context the teachers provided in the classroom and in other assignments, it’s just a wee bit presumptuous to assume that the only thing these kids took away from this was a notion that war is a barrel of laughs.  Okay?

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Filed under American Revolution

On the occasionally hirsute Revolutionary soldier

One of the interesting things about reenactors is that they have to devote extensive attention to questions that would never occur to the rest of us—even those of us who are fascinated with history.  Questions involving facial hair, for example.

For the eighteenth century, the answer would seem to be simple, at least at first glance. In depictions of gentlemen from this era, facial hair is practically unheard of.  Hence this admonition from a Rev War reenacting group:

18th century men did not wear beards, goatees, soul patches or long sideburns. (Yes, some German troops did sport waxed moustaches and Edward Teach, the infamous pirate wore a trademark black beard early in the century – but these are rare exceptions which had purpose in what they did.) Whatever you may have seen in movies – or even on reenactors – men simply didn’t wear beards during this era.

The German exception is an interesting one, and has always puzzled me.  Some Hessian units did indeed sport mustaches, and facial hair was also de rigueur in certain European hussar and grenadier units.  I’ve never understood why. Whenever I see a film clip or painting with Continentals going toe-to-toe against mercenaries with Super Mario Bros. mustaches, it always looks odd.

For most soldiers and civilians, however, going clean-shaven was the ideal.  But in terms of what actually happened on campaign, of course, things were probably quite a bit more complicated.  For one thing, the fact that officers were telling their men to shave regularly doesn’t mean the men were actually doing it.  If you look at Rev War orderly books, you’ll notice that commands regarding the troops’ appearance were repeated over and over again with ever-increasing tones of irritation, indicating that soldiers weren’t too compliant about this sort of thing.  Indeed, in his magnificent book on the Continental Army, Charles Royster states that “the most common of the soldiers’ signs of independence were hair and hats.”  This refers chiefly to the length of the hair on top of the head, but given this kind of independent streak there were probably a few oddballs in camp who were letting their chins get stubbly just to be ornery.

More importantly, and probably more commonly, the exigencies of warfare meant that soldiers were periodically unable to keep up their usual routines. In December 1776, as retreating American troops crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Charles Wilson Peale remembered one soldier who approached him “in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores,” and it turned out to be his own brother.  His appearance was so ragged that Peale didn’t recognize him at first—probably the most sobering testimony to the harsh conditions in Washington’s Army that I’ve ever read.

Of course, this sort of hairiness must have been unusual, or else Peale probably wouldn’t have noted it.  It was neither condoned nor typical, so Rev War reenactors are doubtless correct in discouraging facial hair for new recruits.

Still, this raises larger issues for reenactors that go beyond specific matters like facial hair to suggest some of the difficulties of trying to depict history as it was lived.  Do you try to portray the ideal soldier, or do you indicate some of the minor infractions and hardships that arose from time to time?  Should each member of the unit try to be as “typical” as possible, or should you try to suggest some of the diversity that must have been present?  And if you’re going to try for the latter, how much is too much?

Reenacting, when done properly, is therefore a difficult enterprise, fraught with unique and delicate challenges.  I think serious reenactors deserve the respect of anyone who researches or teaches history.

By the way, just a few days ago I ordered a used copy of Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s book on General Lord Cornwallis.  It still has a sticker from the “Cottonwood Senior High” library, wherever that is.  By a remarkable coincidence, it arrived today, as I was typing this post, and apparently some student at Cottonwood High thought eighteenth-century armies needed a little more facial hair, because this is what the cover looked like when I opened it:

Doesn’t look half bad, actually.

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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

A face from King’s Mountain

It’s a rare thing to be able to see a face from a Revolutionary War battle, so I think this photo is pretty darn cool.  William Beattie was one of Campbell’s Virginians, the contingent that marched the farthest to fight at King’s Mountain.

Note that two of Beattie’s brothers were also in the battle and that one of them lost his life.  If you peruse rosters of King’s Mountain veterans you’ll find quite a few instances of close relatives serving in the same units.  (John Sevier lost one of the brothers who fought under him due to a mortal wound in the kidney.)

For more faces from the Revolution, check out Maureen Taylor’s The Last Muster.

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Country music star Josh Turner admires Francis Marion

He admires him so much, in fact, that he named his new kid after him.  A fine choice.

I don’t know much about country music, but I’ve heard enough about Turner to know that he has a great voice and is one heck of a nice guy.  Congratulations to the family.  This calls for a cigar and a rousing chorus:

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board met today

…but, contrary to expectation, didn’t vote on who would be getting a new resort casino license.  One of the contenders, of course, is hoping to open a casino in Gettysburg, something a lot of us think is a bad idea.

The next meeting is scheduled for January 26, so maybe this whole thing will be resolved then.  Keep an eye on the PGCB’s website for the agenda to be posted. In the meantime, if you think Gettysburg isn’t the best place for a casino, drop them a line and let them know.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

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And the Park Service historian just sighs. . .

AOL News decided to start the year off with a glance at how America is getting geared up for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, so they called up the usual suspects for sound bites and came away with the predictable rhetoric, guaranteed to be 100% free of any meaningful historic sensibility.

NAACP official Lonnie Randolph compares the South Carolina fire-eaters to Timothy McVeigh, since both parties “disagreed with America.”  A nice grasp of political nuance, that.

Meanwhile, Mark Simpson of the SCV argues that focusing exclusively on slavery as a casus belli “would be like taking a book that has 10 or 15 chapters and tearing all the chapters out except one. While slavery was an issue, it was by no means what brought about the war.”  One wonders what the other nine or fourteen chapters might have been.

Meanwhile, the article reports, “Robert Sutton, the Park Service historian, just sighs.”  I know how he feels.

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