Tag Archives: American Revolution

The Patriot and rites of passage

As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.

Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination.  In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage.  Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood.  For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country.  Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.

Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery.  He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material.  In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.

In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T.  The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons.  Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist.  The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.

The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children.  For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence.  Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep.  The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile.  Check out this deleted scene:

There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis.  He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history.  We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability.  If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated.  The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.

The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end.  When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling.  The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation.  The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved.  And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.

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Auditions for a crossing

Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington.  I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call.  Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing.  (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)

But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years.  Think  American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats.  It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.

I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role.  There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced.  Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.

Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right.  Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved.  He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text.  I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.

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The Anti-Federalists said there’ll be days like this

A columnist at WND seems to be suggesting that the Framers are the ones who screwed up this whole America thing:

It is high time Americans celebrate the Anti-Federalists, for they were correct in predicting the fate of freedom after Philadelphia.

To deny that the Anti-Federalists were right is to deny reality.

Having prophesied that Philadelphia was the beginning of the end of the freedoms won in the American Revolution, our Anti-Federalist philosophical fathers fought to forestall the inevitable. They failed.

Now you know who got us into this mess. It was these guys:

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Teaser trailer for AMC’s Rev War series

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Online records

When I was working on my master’s thesis, one of the things I wanted to do was examine the federal pension applications of King’s Mountain veterans.  The NARA Rev War pension files are fantastic sources, sort of like miniature autobiographies of common soldiers along with supporting documentation.  Thing is, there are a heck of a lot of them, and I was only after pension files from veterans of one particular battle, so each roll of microfilm only had a few documents that were relevant to my project.  I spent as much time fast forwarding through microfilm reels to get to what I needed as I did reading the material I wanted to see.

Fortunately, people who are interested in using the Rev War pension files have it a lot easier these days.  Almost all of them are available at Fold3, one of the best subscription services to access digitized material.  These aren’t transcriptions, mind you, but digital versions of what you’d see if you were looking at the microfilm.  All you have to do is pay a subscription fee and you can peruse these documents to your heart’s content while sitting on the couch in your pajamas.  No gas mileage, no parking hassles, no library closing hours, no other researchers hogging the microfilm reader, and no duplication costs.

The Rev War pension files are just one example of the sort of thing you can access through these online subscription services—pay vouchers, muster rolls, the records of the Southern Claims Commission, Indian treaties, journals of the Continental Congress, Washington’s letters.

There’s clearly a lot to be said for these online services, and yet I haven’t run across that many academic history books that cite them.  Part of the reason for this is simple: people haven’t been digitizing manuscripts for all that long.  But even when it comes to more recent books, I don’t see that many online collections cited.  I know a lot of genealogists who make extensive use of these online services, but not many professional historians who do so.

Again, these sites offer digitized versions of the exact same thing you’d see if you consulted the microform, so on the face of it it’s hard to see why there would be any difference in citing one instead of the other.  In fact, if one of the purposes of citation is accountability (i.e., to allow readers to easily check an author’s sources), citing an online digitized document would seem to facilitate that better than citing the same thing from a roll of microfilm or a folder in a vault.

So is it just me, or are academic historians reluctant to use online services like Fold3, and is there some reason for that?  And will we start to see these types of services utilized more frequently by academic researchers as time passes?

(By the way, if it seems like I’ve been obsessing lately about choosing among different formats of primary source material, I plead guilty as charged.  This book project has made it something of a pressing issue for me.)

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Using published primary sources

As handy as it is when you can access the same primary source material in different forms, it also forces you to make choices about the form you’re going to use.  For example, when I undertook this King’s Mountain project I knew that sooner or later I’d need to dig into the Cornwallis material at the UK’s National Archives in Kew.  I’m in no position for a trans-Atlantic commute, so consulting the original documents is pretty much out of the question.  Thankfully, this material is available on microfilm, so I assumed I’d be scrolling through them while seated in front of a machine.  (Some of Cornwallis’s papers appeared in a three-volume biographical work published in the nineteenth century, but these volumes don’t have everything I need.)

But just recently I found out about a comprehensive six-volume collection of Cornwallis’s papers relating to the Southern Campaign, edited by Ian Saberton and published by Naval & Military Press in 2010.  A nearby library has all six volumes, so it would be a lot easier for me to use the books than it would be to track down a repository with the microfilm and print what I need.  This would also allow me to maximize my research time and budget on the collections I can only access in manuscript or microform.

At this point, I’ve just about talked myself into using these books instead of the microfilm so that I can spare myself some hassle and devote more time and attention to other collections that are only available in manuscript or microform.  An annotated documentary edition also gives you the benefit of reading the editors’ insights into the documents, which can be extremely helpful.  I’ve found just a couple of reviews of the Cornwallis volumes.  One review was pretty positive; the other criticized the editorial apparatus but said little about the transcriptions themselves.  Since the transcriptions are what I really need, I’m not too worried about whether the annotations or introductions are extensive.

Still, it’s a trade-off.  As with any published documentary edition, the question basically comes down to whether the convenience of a printed and easily available published version of a manuscript source is worth being another step removed from the original documents.  Microfilm isn’t the original, of course, but at least you’re looking at images of the documents themselves.  And I’ll be relying on the Cornwallis papers pretty heavily, since I’m trying to incorporate more of the British perspective than other King’s Mountain studies have included.

These are the type of questions I’ve been mulling over lately.  Now I want to hear from you guys.  What do you folks think about using published editions of primary source material when the same material is available in microform?  As readers, does it have any effect on how you evaluate a scholarly work?  And for those of you who write history, do you prefer to use a printed documentary edition when one is available, instead of manuscripts or microform?

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Novel approach to King’s Mountain

I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it.  The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer.  McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework. 

The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups.  McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition.  At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.  Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir.  Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it.  It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources.  (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book.  I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)

When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy.  Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.

These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle.  If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it.  McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling.  We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own.  Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.

It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region.  This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century.  If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

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Patrick Ferguson’s two Virginias

Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain is out now.  I was hoping to pick up a copy yesterday, but the nearest bookstore didn’t have it in yet.  I don’t read much fiction, but it’s not often somebody writes a novel about your favorite historical subject, so I’m really interested in this one.  You can read an excerpt at Appalachian History.

The main characters in the excerpt are two women who share the same nickname, Virginia Sal and Virginia Paul (or Poll), both of whom reportedly accompanied Ferguson on the campaign and were present during the battle.  Quite a few books dealing with King’s Mountain refer to them, and they also appear in the film shown at the battleground’s visitor center.

When it comes to documenting their presence in Ferguson’s camp, things get as little tricky.  As with so much of what we know about the battle, the tale of the two Virginias owes as much to later oral tradition as it does to firsthand source material.  I’m about to discuss these two women in some detail, so if you’re unfamiliar with their story and you’re planning to read McCrumb’s novel, you might want to skip this post until you finish the book.

The fate of the two Virginias is one of the more colorful aspects of King’s Mountain lore.  The red-headed Virginia Sal reportedly caught a fatal bullet and was buried on the battlefield, either next to Ferguson himself or in a common grave with some of the dead Tories.  Virginia Paul is variously said to have been captured in the action and later released by Col. William Campbell, to have traveled with the Whigs back to North Carolina before going off to join Cornwallis, and to have pointed Fergsuon out to the attacking Whigs.

Patrick Ferguson’s grave. By National Park Service Digital Image Archives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, women frequently accompanied Revolutionary War armies into the field as camp followers in order to cook, haul water, provide laundry and nursing services, and so on.  But many accounts of King’s Mountain have the Virginias providing Ferguson with services of a less respectable character, claiming that the officer was keeping a mistress or two in camp.

In his 1881 book on the battle, Lyman Draper claimed that this tradition had been circulating in the Carolinas for fifty years.  His inquiries about Ferguson’s women yielded reports from about half a dozen correspondents in the region.  These letters date from about a century after the battle, but they do provide some tantalizing details.  W.D. Glenn claimed that Ferguson had dual mistresses with him at King’s Mountain, based on reports from “two old citizens near me” who got the information from veterans.  Wallace Reinhardt told Draper that Ferguson’s woman was named “Featherstone,” while J.R. Logan mentioned a string of beads taken from Virginia Sal’s body after her death.  Always fascinated by a good anecdote, Draper included the tale of the two Virginias in his book, and the story of Ferguson’s dual mistresses has become an inextricable part of the story of the battle as a whole.  Some early writers took it as proof that the Scotsman lacked any scruples.  For example, in his 1920 history of southwestern Virginia, William C. Pendleton wrote, “That Ferguson had no regard for morality and decency was evidenced by the fact that he had two mistresses with him when he was killed.”

If the “mistress” angle is correct, Ferguson wouldn’t have been the only British officer to do so while on campaign in America.  But since female camp followers performed a number of legitimate services for troops in the field, the fact that two women were reportedly with Ferguson at King’s Mountain doesn’t necessarily mean that he was sleeping with either of them.  To modern ears, the notion that Ferguson was keeping a buxom red-headed lover in his camp, that she died during his famous last stand, and that they were both buried on the battleground sounds like the sort of romanticized, unsubstantiated baloney that would appeal to a credulous nineteenth-century antiquarian.  Yet as tempting as it might be to dismiss the tale of the two Virginias as nothing more than a backwoods Carolina legend, there are actually a couple of sources that lend some confirmation to the story.

The first is this statement in the pension application of King’s Mountain veteran John McQueen:

That there was a woman who Ferguson had been keeping who had left the British army and had come with news to Capt. Lewis [presumably Capt. Joel Lewis] and she told him that Ferguson could be known by him using his sword in his left hand as he had been wounded previously in the right and Capt. Lewis communicated this to Col Cleveland and after the battle commenced, he pointed out Ferguson and selected 8 or 9 of his best riflemen and told them he had to fall, and there was 6 or 7 bullet holes through him after the battle….

This may reveal a kernel of truth to the story that Virginia Paul identified Ferguson, but McQueen’s claim that the woman “had left the British army” indicates that she had already departed from the camp before the battle started and then encountered the Whigs later at some point on their approach to King’s Mountain.  That seems to contradict the story that she was among the Tories taken on the field, as well as Draper’s statement that when the battle ended she “was seen to ride around the camp as unconcerned as though nothing of unusual moment had happened.”  Still, it’s significant that a veteran of the battle believed Ferguson had taken up with a woman who was accompanying the army.

The other source isn’t on paper.  It’s on the battlefield itself—or rather underneath it.  In his book on Tories in the American Revolution, North Callahan reports that in 1845 Dr. J.W. Tracy of the town of King’s Mountain, NC found two sets of remains in Ferguson’s grave and identified one of them as female.  And in his guidebook to the battleground and collection of eyewitness accounts, NPS ranger Robert Dunkerly notes that ground penetrating radar confirms the presence of a second body.  So just because some historical anecdote sounds too dramatic and juicy to be true, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bunk.

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Various items worthy of note

  • 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.

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Attendance and artifacts

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.

Independence Mall, from Wikimedia Commons

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.

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