Not the site where his army surrendered, but the spot where Burgoyne himself turned his sword over to Gates.
Not the site where his army surrendered, but the spot where Burgoyne himself turned his sword over to Gates.
Well, the good news is that somebody’s working on a new book-length account of the expedition which ended in Patrick Ferguson’s defeat, utilizing extensive research in the primary sources as well as the latest scholarship on militia and the Revolution in the Carolina backcountry.
Here’s the bad news. The guy working on it is me.
I’ve actually been at this project for a while now, but I haven’t had the gumption to tell anybody about it. I played this one pretty close to my chest until reassuring myself that I could actually pull it off, but at this point I’m far enough along that I think it might actually see the light of day.
King’s Mountain has fascinated me since I was in college, and I’ve long wondered why there are so few books about it. The last really intensive treatment was Lyman Draper’s 1881 book King’s Mountain and its Heroes, which is thorough but also badly outdated, heavily dependent on tenuous oral tradition, and saturated with the filiopiety that characterizes many nineteenth-century historical works.
Since I can’t seem to stop poring over everything I can get my hands on related to King’s Mountain, I decided a good while ago that I might as well do something productive with my obsession. I’ve gone over quite a bit of the published source material, both primary and secondary, and now I’m digging into the manuscripts and putting the finishing touches on a proposal.
Let me talk a little bit about what this project is and what it isn’t. I’m studying the campaign which led to Ferguson’s defeat as a whole, so I’ll be looking into his organization of the Carolina Tories, the British march into North Carolina, and the Whigs’ march across the mountains, as well as the actual battle. In other words, this won’t be a study of the tactics and troops movements alone. I’ll be dealing with all that, of course, but what I’m aiming for is an analysis of the series of events of which the Battle of King’s Mountain was the climax. I’ll also be discussing the battle’s nasty aftermath, and I’ll have at least one chapter (probably two) on the way Americans have remembered it, which was the subject of my MA thesis. Tradition and legend have played such an important role in interpretations of the battle that I don’t think I could exclude an examination of memory from this project even if I wanted to.
So this will be an attempt to make sense of what brought Ferguson’s Tories and the Whigs into action on a wooded ridge that October day, what happened when they met, and the impact this confrontation had on the war and the way Americans have interpreted it.
And now that you guys are in on it, I guess I’m committed to keep plugging away until the thing’s done. Gulp.
Sharyn McCrumb is taking on my favorite historical subject for her next novel. Looks pretty cool!
Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner best known for his work on WWII, is writing a trilogy on the American Revolution.
The Siege of Vicksburg is the subject of Jeff Shaara’s newest novel.
Finally, a new book on Dunmore’s War is hitting the shelves in July. I’ve really been looking forward to this one; the publication date apparently got pushed back, so I’m glad it’s coming to the stores soon.
I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past. The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult. So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?
The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether. If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders. The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.
It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired. Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines. Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.
The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists. The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies. And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.
The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them. You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours. This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.
Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective. Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved? Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other? I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.
As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic. Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic. A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story. What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings. Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them. A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army. Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.
In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls. “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.” Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself. (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.) These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify. Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.
At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders. We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive. As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.
As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody. The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.” In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact. The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved. It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be. It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed. Your mileage may vary.
Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped. Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.
Like the name of the battle itself, the title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution is a bit misleading. Just as his Mayflower covered more than the Pilgrims’ ship, his newest book is about more than the bloody confrontation at Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775. He tells the story of the Revolution in and around Boston from the time of the tea party through the British evacuation in 1776.
In Bunker Hill, Philbrick’s gift for narrative serves him well when there’s some sort of action going on. The chapters on the war’s first day, on the titular battle, and the siege of Boston are where this book shines, although the best modern account of Lexington and Concord remains David Hackett Fischer’s masterful Paul Revere’s Ride. It’s fitting that Hollywood has already taken an interest in this book, which is cinematic in its vivid characterizations, gripping battle passages, and rapid pacing.
The earlier chapters, which deal with the political maneuvering that led up to the shooting war, are not as strong. Perhaps this is because it puts Philbrick out of his element. He first catapulted to popular acclaim with a gripping account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, he’s at its best when he describes the experiences of men in deadly and dramatic circumstances. Or perhaps this is simply due to the nature of popular narrative history itself, a genre in which character and action often take precedence over analysis.
Philbrick’s bibliography is extensive; he has read widely in the secondary literature on the Revolution in New England. One of his contributions is to emphasize the role of Dr. Joseph Warren, whose critical place in the colonial protest movement is familiar to historians but less so to average readers. Philbrick suggests that Warren’s death at Bunker Hill—he arrived on the battleground to fight as a common soldier even though the Provincial Congress had appointed him a major general—cost the Patriots one of their more able leaders, and he notes several points at which they might have benefited from his presence had he survived.
Ultimately, this is a good work of popular history. If you’re new to the Revolution, or if you’re a more seasoned history buff looking for a refresher before setting off on a summer trip to Boston’s Freedom Trail, you’ll find Philbrick an informed and engaging guide.
INSP, the cable network specializing in family programming, is going to air a colonial-themed miniseries starting at 7:00 P.M. on Memorial Day. The show is called Courage, New Hampshire, and it’s set in the late eighteenth century.
It apparently originated as a direct-to-DVD production put together by a couple of guys who met through a Tea Party rally. The guy who financed the first episode is into living history, so it might be worth a look. You can find a few short clips on YouTube.
Here’s some interesting news out of Georgia for all of us Rev War aficionados.
Oh, and speaking of Rev War buffs, don’t forget about the Bunker Hill book giveaway. Just pick a number between 1 and 1,775 and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org by 10:00 P.M. on May 5. I won’t use your e-mail address for any purpose other than contacting the winner to get shipping info for the prize, so don’t be shy. Entries have been coming in since the first day, but the more the merrier.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution hits bookstores in a week. Thanks to the fine folks at Viking Press, one lucky reader of this blog will win a free copy.
Pay attention, kids. Here’s how this works.
That’s it. Good luck, folks. You may submit your entries startiiiiiiinnnnnggggg…now.
Resilient folks, those Bay Staters.