The Continental Army’s foreign-born bad boys

Lately we’ve looked at how film, TV, and fiction about the RevWar tend to portray the British as arrogant dipwads.  (That’s a technical social science term, is what that is.)

I think there’s a corollary to this stereotypical view of the men who led Britain’s armies in America, and it applies to the Continentals.

Think of the American officers who come across the worst in popular historiography, film, TV, and so on.  The list would probably include Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and maybe Thomas Conway.  Arnold’s place on the list is obvious.  The others share something in common: all were foreign-born. Gates and Lee were both natives of England, while Conway was a French-educated Irishman.

Would we have such prominent collective memories of these men as haughty but ineffectual snots if they had been born in America?

It certainly wouldn’t have cancelled out the stigma of Gates’s performance at Camden, Lee’s ignominious capture and unseemly ambition, and Conway’s backbiting.  In other words, they were probably bound to end up on the wrong side of historical memory.  But I wonder if the fact that they were professional veterans of European armies helped the process along.

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2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

2 responses to “The Continental Army’s foreign-born bad boys

  1. Interesting point. Hamilton, Von Steuben and of course LaFayette were foreign born but had the advantage of not losing a major engagement. Washington of course lost major engagements but managed to keep things together during retreats.

    Gates, Lee and Arnold were great disappointments because of the expectations surrounding their experience. Never heard much criticism directed at them because they were foreign born however. Interesting post!

    • Michael Lynch

      Hamilton and Lafayette also came out on Washington’s good side, unlike Gates, Lee, and Conway. In hindsight, criticizing Washington didn’t work out too well, even though there was plenty of grounds for it at the time.

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