- I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN. The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain. It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
- While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself. Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more. Memberships start at just $25.
- Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season. If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia. On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle. They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
- Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs. What. Were. They. Thinking?
- Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
- Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
- A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
- Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.
Tag Archives: American Revolution
There’s an interesting article at AxisPhilly on the challenges facing the historic attractions in and around Independence Mall. Big museums in the City of Brotherly Love are dealing with shrinking funds and visitation numbers that are below their goals, even as yet another public history institution—the planned Museum of the American Revolution—is preparing to set up shop in the same neighborhood.
Even with some buildings closed due to budget cuts, Independence National Historical Park is doing a brisk business, with 2 million visitors to the Liberty Bell last year and capacity crowds of 686,788 at Independence Hall. (If the number for Independence Hall seems low, bear in mind that NPS restricts the number of people allowed into the building and tours fill up early.) The National Constitution Center, by contrast, brought in fewer than 400,000, even though it’s right across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell building. You’d assume that most museums would be delighted with annual visitation of 400,000, but the folks at the NCC were apparently counting on more. The nearby Jewish History Museum saw 100,000 visitors and the African American Museum just 65,000.
What accounts for the fact that INHP is doing a more brisk business than the other museums? Some of the answers are obvious. As the article’s author notes, the cost of admission probably has a lot to do with it. Getting in to see the Liberty Bell or the room where the Continental Congress met won’t cost you a dime, but you’ll have to fork over some cash to visit the National Constitution Center and other museums.
Name recognition has got to be another factor, perhaps the most significant one. You couldn’t ask for a historic building with more superstar appeal than Independence Hall. The Jewish History Museum and the African American Museum presumably cater to a more specialized crowd. But the National Constitution Center isn’t as narrowly focused in its subject matter, and it seems to market itself extremely well.
Why aren’t more of the people who visit INHP making the short stroll over to the NCC? I think the AxisPhilly author is onto something important when she notes that the NCC “doesn’t have a core collection of objects that people will pay to come and see.”
Ultimately, what I think most heritage tourists want more than anything else is authenticity. They want to stand in the original spot, see the real thing, have a face-to-face encounter with the past. Take a tour of some historic house, and you’re bound to hear somebody in the group ask how much of the structure and furnishings are original. Likewise, when I was a museum intern, the first question people asked when they stood at the counter trying to decide whether or not to hand over their money was, “What is there to see?” They weren’t referring to the exhibits, but the collection; they’d come to a Lincoln museum to see Lincoln artifacts. It’s like the apocryphal story about Willie Sutton. When a reporter asked him why he robbed banks, he supposedly answered, “because that’s where the money is.” People who are interested in history go to history museums because that’s where the historic stuff is.
This is an age of high-dollar mega-museums with ever more elaborate exhibits, but public historians always need to keep in mind that the objects themselves are what separate museums from other media of education and entertainment. We definitely don’t need to return to the days when an exhibit consisted of nothing but text panels and cases filled with labeled items, but we also don’t need to lose sight of the fact that while exhibits will eventually become dated, the objects aren’t going to lose their appeal.
The network has a series in the works called The Thirteen, set in an alternate twenty-first century where America lost the war. It’ll be interesting to see how precise they get about what actually happened differently in their fictional timeline, assuming the show actually goes into production.
This raises the interesting and question of what alternate event or series of events might have resulted in a British victory. Howe manages to trap Washington in New York? Burgoyne brushes aside the opposition in ’77 and the French decide America is a bad investment? Cornwallis subdues the Carolinas and marches into Virginia unopposed? Quite a few intriguing possibilities.
Thanks to a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is going to try and delineate the precise location of the Battle of Cane Creek.
Patrick Ferguson’s Tories shot it out with Charles McDowell’s North Carolina Whigs at Cane Creek on Sept. 12, 1780, less than a month before Ferguson lost his life at King’s Mountain.
We managed to take in one last historic site on the final day of the trip: Point State Park in Pittsburgh, PA. Although it’s not as well known as Bunker Hill or Independence Hall, it’s one of the most important pieces of real estate in the history of North America. The struggle for this triangle of land at the “Forks of the Ohio,” the juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, shaped the destiny of an entire continent.
Control of the Forks meant command of the Ohio River, which also meant command of the continent’s vast interior. Both France and England acted on this realization about the same time, which is why in 1753 Virginia’s royal governor sent an inexperienced young officer named George Washington to tell the French that the Pennsylvania frontier was British territory. Unimpressed, the French proceeded to drive away an English crew building a fort at the Forks and then constructed their own outpost at the site, naming it Fort Duquesne.
In 1754, Virginia sent Washington back to the Pennsylvania frontier to kick the French out. This expedition, of course, culminated in the messy and controversial confrontation at Jumonville Glen and an embarrassing defeat for the inexperienced officer at Ft. Necessity. These proved to be the opening moves in the French and Indian War, so it was the struggle for the Forks of the Ohio that launched the war which resulted in the transfer of France’s North American mainland empire to Britain.
For the first few years of the French and Indian War, the French managed to hold on to Ft. Duquesne and the Forks. Gen. Edward Braddock’s 1755 expedition to Duquesne was wiped out before getting a chance to threaten the fort, and another effort faltered in Sept. 1758. The English finally succeeded in driving the French away from the Forks that November. They built their own fortification very near the site of Duquesne, naming it “Fort Pitt” after the popular English politician. This fort—quite a bit larger than its French predecessor—was one of the most substantial defensive works in colonial North America.
When the war ended in 1763, Indians along the Great Lakes and Ohio frontiers revolted against the new English masters of the interior, disgusted at British attempts to restrict trade and gift-giving. The outbreak of Pontiac’s Rebellion saw Ft. Pitt and other outposts along the frontier under siege by these irate warriors; the fort’s commandant attempted to break the encirclement using smallpox-infected blankets, but the Indians ultimately broke off the siege themselves to intercept a force coming to Pitt’s relief. The site continued to play an important role as a staging ground for colonial forces in Lord Dunmore’s War, and then for American forces operating in the West during the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion.
Of course, there might not have been a Revolutionary War if Britain hadn’t tightened its grip on its American colonies after winning the French and Indian War. Since it was the cost of that war which prompted Britain to tighten its grip in the first place, it wouldn’t be too vast an oversimplification to say that if England and France hadn’t disputed mastery of the Forks of the Ohio, American independence wouldn’t have happened when and how it did. It would therefore be pretty hard to overstate the historical significance of this piece of ground at the meeting place of three rivers.
Unfortunately, the forts which once symbolized these nations’ commitments to control the Ohio River Valley are pretty much long gone, but there are still some features worth seeing at the Point. A brick outline marks the site of Ft. Duquesne, and an outbuilding of Ft. Pitt called the “Blockhouse” is extant and open for tours. Built in 1764, it’s probably the oldest surviving building west of the Appalachians.
In addition, one of the bastions of Ft. Pitt has been reconstructed and houses the Fort Pitt Museum, which is run by the John Heinz History Center.
I highly recommend a visit to the museum. The exhibits deal with the struggle to control the Forks of the Ohio before and during the French and Indian War, as well as the important role Ft. Pitt played in the Revolution and into the early national period. There are some fantastic military artifacts to see in the galleries, and the gift shop has a great stock of books on the French and Indian War and the early history of western Pennsylvania.
You can get a beautiful view of the Point—and of Pittsburgh as a whole—by taking one of the historic incline railways up to the heights overlooking the city. Built in the late 1800′s for immigrant laborers who lived on the mountains above town, there are two of them in operation today.
Now I want to get back up to western Pennsylvania and see Fort Necessity, the Braddock battlefield, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
We didn’t focus as strictly on historic sites in New York as we did in Boston, but we did manage to do a little heritage touring on our last day in the Big Apple. We made a point of visiting Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, site of the nation’s first Capitol and George Washington’s first inauguration. The original building is gone, but today an impressive classical structure and a statue of Washington mark the spot.
Inside the building is an exhibit on the trial of colonial printer John Peter Zenger, arrested for publishing articles critical of New York’s royal governor. Zenger’s 1735 trial for seditious libel in the original Federal Hall—at that time it was New York’s City Hall—proved to be a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press. His lawyer argued that demonstrably factual statements cannot be considered libelous, the jury agreed, and Zenger walked away a free man.
You’ll also find Washington’s inaugural Bible inside, on loan from St. John’s Lodge…
…and the stone on which he stood while taking the oath of office.
After the inaugural ceremony, Washington attended a service at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. He continued to worship there while the capital remained in New York, and you can still see his pew, right underneath an oil painting of the Great Seal of the U.S.
On the east side of the church is a memorial to Gen. Richard Montgomery, killed while leading the attack on Quebec at the end of 1775. Montgomery’s remains were moved to St. Paul’s with a great deal of fanfare in 1818.
Unlike its mother church, St. Paul’s Chapel made it through the great New York fire of ’76 and is now the oldest church building in the city. In fact, surviving catastrophes has been something of a hallmark of St. Paul’s. It’s right next to the World Trade Center site, but miraculously came through the 9/11 attacks without any major damage. Visitors left thousands of stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and other memorials around the church after the attacks, and some of these mementoes are on exhibit inside the sanctuary. (You can see a few of them in the photo of Washington’s pew.) Emergency personnel working at the WTC site stayed at St. Paul’s during the recovery effort. And the building is still there, a dozen years after that awful September morning and more than two centuries since Washington stepped inside on the very day American government opened for business.
Ryan and I got a firsthand look at the revival of popular interest in John Adams when we tried to schedule a visit to Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, MA. We’d planned on an afternoon visit, but since tour tickets are limited and on a first-come, first-served basis we decided to call first. It’s a good thing we did, because every single tour for the day was already full, and we’d called not long after lunch. Capacity crowds aren’t unusual at the site. From what the staff told me, ANHP has been doing a brisk business in ticket sales for some time, ever since David McCullough and HBO made John Adams fun again.
Or perhaps I should say they introduced us to a man who had always been fun. Adams had such a vivid personality, and expressed that personality so fully in his writing, that he’s the most flesh-and-blood of all the Revolutionary demigods. When you read John Adams, there’s no Washingtonian marble exterior to crack, no haze of Jeffersonian contradiction to penetrate. He jumps right down off his pedestal, pokes his finger in your chest, and spouts whatever’s on his mind. Irritating but engaging, stubborn but fiercely loyal and determined, he has all the makings of a great TV character. No wonder people flock to the places he lived.
Anyway, we picked another day to visit and headed out early. It was worth the effort, because there aren’t many places where you can see two presidential birthplaces for the price of one, just as there aren’t many historic sites interpreted as well as this one.
As of this writing, the visitor center is located at the Presidents Place Galleria, a sort of office/retail building in Quincy. I think ANHP is in the process of moving to new digs, but until then you won’t find much in the way of an exhibit. What you will find is an excellent film narrated by Laura Linney, which offers an overview of four generations of Adams family history, from the American Revolution all the way to the Gilded Age of Henry and Brooks Adams.
The park has its own trolley service to conduct visitors to the three historic homes. The first two homes are right next to each other, both of them constructed in the distinctive New England “salt-box” style. The first is the house where John Adams was born in 1735. (Tourist with sailor hat not included.)
Just across the lawn sits the house where John and Abigail set up housekeeping and where John started his law practice, made a political name for himself as America and England headed toward war, and wrote the Massachusetts Constitution. Their son John Quincy was born here, too, so you’ve got two presidential birthplaces less than eighty feet apart.
The third home, and the focus of the tour, reflects the elevated stature the Adamses enjoyed due to John’s public service in the Revolution. Peacefield, or the “Old House,” is the home John and Abigail bought while overseas, and served as the family seat until 1927.
The house still has many original furnishings, and each room boasts a mixture of items from all four famous generations of the Adams family. Some of these items are priceless. I was especially excited to see the desk where John Adams wrote the letter that mended his relationship with Thomas Jefferson, initiating one of the most remarkable bodies of correspondence in American history.
Some of ANHP’s most valuable assets aren’t in the collection at all, but walking around in uniform. The guides are some of the best interpreters working at any historic site I’ve ever visited; their knowledge is encyclopedic and their delivery is polished and engaging. I’d venture to say that our tour of Peacefield was probably the finest historic house tour I’ve ever taken. The ranger was in total command of his subject matter and his audience. It’s no small thing to master the history of an entire family when the family in question produced two presidents, some accomplished diplomats, and one of the country’s most distinguished men of letters.
There are a couple of other neat Adams-related things to see in Quincy. A nice statue of Abigail and a young John Quincy stands not far from the visitor center.
And you’ll definitely want to set aside some time for a tour of United First Parish Church, which is just across the street. Established as a Puritan church in the 1630′s, it became a Unitarian congregation in the 1700′s. The current building, with its columned portico and a sanctuary with a beautifully carved ceiling, dates from 1828. John, Abigail, John Quincy, and Louisa Catherine Adams are all laid to rest in the crypt.
Our tour guide took us inside the burial chamber, a small, stone room with a low ceiling whitewashed walls. It’s about as intimate an experience with history as you can have. I should’ve taken a picture, but it just didn’t seem right to dig my camera out with two sets of presidents and first ladies lying there.
I think I was even more psyched about visiting Lexington and Concord than doing the Freedom Trail. It’s a must-see for anybody interested in the Revolution, and Paul Revere’s Ride was one of the first books I read after I switched my major to history in college.
Minute Man National Historical Park holds much of the important real estate involved in the Revolution’s first fight, although Lexington Common is town property and therefore outside the park’s bounds.
The common is probably the most well-groomed battlefield I’ve ever visited, and for one of the most important pieces of turf in the world, it’s also relatively unadorned. Just a few monuments, including the “Revolutionary Monument” set up in 1799…
a rock inscribed with Capt. John Parker’s instructions to his men…
…and the iconic statue of a militiaman.
The Lexington Historical Society operates three historic buildings in the town as museums. We took a tour of Buckman Tavern, which is right beside the green. In the wee hours of the morning on April 19, 1775 the town’s minutemen awaited the arrival of the British here. It’s one of the best historic building tours I’ve ever enjoyed; the tavern is beautifully restored, and our guide was outstanding.
Heading west from Lexington brings you to Minute Man Visitor Center near the eastern entrance to MMNHP. Here you’ll find a small exhibit on some of the battle’s participants and an innovative multimedia presentation that gives you a great overview of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings. It’s similar to some of the shows at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, and very engaging.
This is one of those parks you can see in a few hours or a lifetime, depending on how much time and interest you have. I should note that MMNHP also boasts a couple of really important literary sites, including a home owned by both Louisa May Alcott’s family and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as another home inhabited by Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The NPS was renovating one of these buildings and the other closed before we arrived, but we hadn’t really planned on touring them, so no big deal. (I wanted to maximize my time at the Rev War sites anyway, and I’ve always thought the Transcendentalists were a bunch of insufferably self-righteous navel-gazers.)
There’s a five-mile trail tracing part of the route of the running battle between the militia and the British regulars with stops at a few key points, like the Revere capture site.
The park has another visitor center near Concord’s North Bridge. Among the artifacts displayed here is “the Hancock,” one of the cannons stashed away in Concord that the British hoped to recover on their ill-fated mission.
A short walk downhill from the visitor center is the most famous bridge in American military history this side of Antietam—or a replicated version, anyway. (The town of Concord dismantled the original North Bridge in 1793.)
There are three monuments worth noting near the bridge. Emerson’s famous Concord Hymn was written for the dedication of the first one, an obelisk erected in 1836.
Daniel Chester French’s impressive statue of a militiaman was cast from seven Civil War cannons.
Finally—and the most impressive one to me—is the grave marker for two of the British soldiers killed at the bridge fight.
I’ve been back home long enough to recuperate from two weeks of sightseeing, so it’s time for that most venerable of all end-of-vacation traditions: forcing a captive audience to look at your photos.
We’ll start with some highlights from the Boston Freedom Trail. As I said a few days ago, it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast of early American history. I don’t think there’s any other place where you can see so many important American Revolution sites in such close proximity to each other, except maybe Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. (I’ll be posting some stuff about INHP eventually, too; it was a long trip.)
My friend Ryan and I set out on the Freedom Trail about 2:00 in the afternoon. Because there’s so much to see between the starting point on Boston Common and the end point at Bunker Hill, and because it was already so late in the day, I had told Ryan that we’d never be able to do the whole thing that afternoon, and that we should plan on picking up where we left off the next day. Thing is, Ryan played basketball and tennis in high school and has never lost his competitive streak. Apparently in an effort to set some sort of record, he announced that we were going to stand on Bunker Hill that very day, come hell or high water.
One of the first things you see on the trail relates to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary one. It’s one of my favorite works of commemorative sculpture, the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common, right across from the State House.
Boston seems to be embracing the history of abolitionism pretty enthusiastically. I’m not familiar enough with abolitionism to know how widespread serious anti-slavery sentiment in the city actually was, but I suppose it’s a handy way to embrace the legacy of the Civil War when most of the actual fighting took place hundreds of miles away.
And speaking of the history of abolitionism, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Monument is Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech in 1829.
Step over to the other side of the church, and you’re also stepping back in time—two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact. Granary Burying Ground dates all the way back to 1660. Its age is apparent from the winged skulls carved on some of the tombstones, a very old motif that’s characteristic of early American grave markers. Again, bear in mind that I’m used to touring regions where “old” means 1790-ish.
There are more important figures from early American history buried here than you can shake a stick at: Benjamin Franklin’s parents…
…and the victims of the Boston Massacre. All in the same graveyard!
The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party, but that was just one of many highlights in this building’s long history of playing host to protest and dissent. An exhibit inside the sanctuary details this history, from the imperial controversy to abolitionism, female suffrage, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.
British troops used the church as a riding stable during the occupation of Boston, but it doesn’t look any worse for wear.
To me, a big highlight of the trail is the Old State House, seat of government in Massachusetts from 1713 to 1798 and now home to a museum that explores politics and public life in the Bay State from the colonial era through the nineteenth century.
You can’t beat the Old State House exhibit for fantastic artifacts, including a coat and other items belonging to John Hancock…
some Stamp Act material…
…and the cane Preston Brooks used to wallop Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.
You’ll also find Indian treaty belts, rare documents, and artifacts from Bunker Hill on display here. Great stuff. If you’re rushed for time on the Freedom Trail and you’ve only got time to tour one building interior, my personal opinion is that you should do this one.
Right outside the State House is a circle of bricks marking the site of the Boston Massacre. This seems to be the popular spot for tourists to take their “Look-Ma-we’re-doing-the-Freedom-Trail” photos, with their arms spread wide and big grins on their faces. I’m not sure how I feel about this; 1770 was a long time ago, but geez, five guys did die here.
Next stop is Faneuil Hall, a most appropriate place for a statue of Sam Adams. The marketplace in and around this site is a great place to pick up souvenirs.
Paul Revere’s house would be a neat thing to see anyway, but it’s of significant architectural interest even without the celebrity name recognition. Built around 1680 on the site of Increase Mather’s parsonage, it was already old by the time Revere bought it. It’s pretty small, so the self-guided tour doesn’t take very long.
Not far from the house is another structure inextricably linked to Revere: Old North Church.
There are quite a few historic churches on the trail, and in fact I haven’t even included them all here, but I think Old North has the most beautiful interior of all of them. (Sorry about the lousy picture focus; I was trying not to use a flash.)
Among those buried in the crypt is Maj. John Pitcairn, who received a mortal wound at Bunker Hill.
There’s an equestrian statue of Revere in a kind of courtyard outside the church. I highly recommend making an effort to visit this spot at night, with the courtyard dark and the steeple illuminated behind it.
The cemetery on Copp’s Hill doesn’t have as many notable residents as Old Granary, but it’s still worth a visit. Increase and Cotton Mather are both buried here.
Most of the sites on the trail are in pretty close proximity to each other, but getting to Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if you insist on geographical precision) requires a good bit of walking. I hadn’t been to many urbanized battlefields before this one, and it was hard to orient myself with all the buildings around. The monument is a lot more impressive in person than I’d expected; you can see it from quite a distance.
Here’s one final recommendation. If you’re going to do the Freedom Trail, you should grab something to eat at the Green Dragon Tavern in the North End, not far from Revere’s house. Despite what their advertising implies, it’s not the same place where Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and their buddies used to hang out, but the steak tips are still pretty darn good.
Long story short, you can do the Freedom Trail in half a day, but you’d better be ready to do some serious huffing and puffing. The Constitution was closed that day, too, so that helped us shave off some time. There are a number of guidebooks and audio tours available; we used the Freedom Trail Foundation’s official guide, which was excellent. A lot of the sites along the way are either free or accept donations, but you can get a combination ticket for Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s house at the small visitor center on Boston Common.
I noticed something while browsing around in Boston’s museum gift shops. They didn’t stock too many local history books. They sold a lot of books on Boston’s history, mind you, but they were mostly books published by major presses rather than works by local authors published by smaller regional presses. The exceptions were walking guides and material of that sort. When I go to museums and sites in other parts of the country, I tend to find books of both kinds on the shelves, but in Boston it was mostly the big commercial and academic publishers represented. I wonder if it’s because the local history of Boston in the American Revolution is so much a part of the national story as a whole.
I found more books of a strictly local orientation at gift shops in Lexington, Concord, and Salem, but still not as many as I’ve seen at gift shops in the South and the West.
I’m not sure if these casual observations reflect anybody else’s experience. Feel free to chime in below. As for me, I’m in New York and I’m going to the AMNH to see some dinos.