Tag Archives: historical memory

Blundering nincompoops and sneering sadists

A few weeks ago, as you might recall, I expressed some frustration with the way AMC’s Turn indulges in some common stereotypes about British officers in the Revolutionary War.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book The Men Who Lost America has won the George Washington Book Prize, and speakers at the ceremony noted this tendency to remember the British commanders as either villains or fools:

In a statement praising the winner, Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, said: “Countless popular books and Hollywood films have portrayed the redcoats and their leaders as blundering nincompoops at best, sneering sadists at worst. O’Shaughnessy’s work ought to kill these stereotypes once and for all — and, in the process, give Americans a richer and more nuanced understanding of our nation’s origins.”

…Publishers in the U.K. told O’Shaughnessy that “no one wants to read about wars we lost.” But he had long been troubled by what he called “a tendency to parody the British commanders as aristocratic buffoons, which was even more pronounced in Britain than in the U.S. It is a thesis that is perpetuated in movie caricatures, popular history and even college text books.”

These stereotypes about the British serve as a foil to what we Americans would like to believe about our own ancestors.  If the British were “sneering sadists,” then the Patriots’ virtue looks that much more sterling by comparison, even though Whigs could be extremely brutal to Tories in American-controlled territory.  And if the British were “blundering nincompoops,” it makes sense to believe that the Americans could defeat them with nothing but pluck and good old Yankee ingenuity, even though American commanders like Washington and Greene knew that the only way to defeat the British regulars was to create an army with the same discipline, hierarchy, and professionalism.

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Turns and twists

Here’s a heads-up for Turn viewers who are a few episodes behind–this post contains spoilers. Ye be warned.

Gen. Charles Lee’s capture is one of the most dramatic and humorous episodes of the American Revolution.  Lee was one of the war’s most colorful figures, an eccentric and unkempt British veteran who was habitually accompanied by a pack of pet dogs.  On the eve of the war he hung up his red coat and adopted America as his home country, fired with a commitment to Whiggish principles.  Lee’s experience got him a commission in the Continental Army, where (like his fellow expatriate Horatio Gates) he became one of Washington’s critics.

Despite his commander-in-chief’s entreaties, Lee dithered while the rest of the army retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in 1776.  On December 12 he stopped for the night at a tavern in Basking Ridge, NJ. British dragoons found him there the next morning, still undressed and several miles from the safety of his troops. Women inside the tavern offered to hide him, but Lee gave himself up when the British threatened to set fire to the building. (Incidentally, one of the dragoons who captured him was Banastre Tarleton, who went on to make a name for himself in the Southern Campaign.)  The troublesome general spent the next sixteen months in captivity, offering advice to the British on how to defeat his former compatriots.

Last week’s episode of Turn depicted Lee’s capture, but changed the circumstances.  The show has Lee falling into the hands of John André while playing hide-and-seek with a young woman who, unknown to him, is a British operative.

It’s an amusing scene.  But it’s no more amusing than the actual circumstances of Lee’s capture.  Why the change to the historical record?

I don’t have a problem with dramatic license. People who adapt history have to compress events, get inside the characters’ heads, and combine historic figures into composites. I get that.

If the story is told well, I can forgive all manner of distortions. I liked 300. I liked The Patriot, for crying out loud. In fact, the grand scheme of things, The Patriot‘s distortions are much more substantial than the liberties Turn took with Lee’s capture, but they don’t irk me as much because I can see the rationale behind them. Modern audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with a slaveowner protagonist, so you make his field hands free men. People want the villain to get what’s coming to him, so instead of having Tarleton/Tavington escape from the field at Cowpens, you have Mel Gibson shove a bayonet in his throat. I get that.

What I don’t get are these little departures that don’t really amount to any improvement over what actually happened. Would a straightforward depiction of Lee’s capture in his nightgown at a Basking Ridge tavern have been any less entertaining than the “Marco Polo” scene? I don’t think so. Nor do I think the notion of Lee passing information to the British before his capture adds anything in terms of entertainment value.

I don’t really intend this to be a criticism of the show. I’ve been enjoying it; in fact, it’s getting better with each episode, especially now that major players like Washington and Cornwallis are putting in appearances. I just get puzzled and irritated when filmmakers sacrifice accuracy for no apparent payoff.

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Casualty-free reenactments

Here’s a little unintentional hilarity for you:

There are few things more ludicrous and worthy of scorn than a poorly-executed death scene.  That’s why, in the past few years, my thinking on battle reenactments has come around to a stance similar to what Kevin Levin recently expressed: “It becomes problematic when reenactors cross the line from representing how units drilled and maneuvered on battlefields to simulating death. There is just something incredibly distasteful about it in my mind.”

I have no objection to reenacting “casualties” in theory.  In practice, it’s another matter.   I can’t tell you how many living history events I’ve been to where the dead and wounded have drawn chuckles because the participants were either having a little too much fun or were terrible actors. All it takes is one corny “fatality” to turn an ostensibly educational enterprise into a travesty.

One of the best reenactments I ever saw had no casualties at all. It was at a national park. Since the NPS doesn’t allow casualty reenactments, the soldiers did everything but take hits. They advanced, retreated, yelled, and took cover, but nobody feigned an injury or death, while a ranger narrated the action.  It was both enlightening and entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it.

You might argue that a reenactment without casualties would give the public an artificially sanitized view of battle, one that trivializes the reality of warfare.  Personally, I don’t think it’s nearly as trivializing as the spectacle of some guy who couldn’t carry a background role in an Ed Wood movie rolling around on the grass, clutching his abdomen, and yelling that he’s a goner.

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The first reenactors of Little Bighorn

During my last stint in grad school I helped out with a conversational English program at a Knoxville church.  The students came from a variety of places, but East Asia was probably the most common point of origin.

During one class–I don’t remember how this happened–the topic of reenacting came up, and most of the students had no idea what we were talking about.  As I tried to explain what reenactors do, one guy from China was absolutely bumfuzzled by the whole concept.

“They shoot guns?” he asked.

“No bullets.  Just gunpowder.  They line up like they’re going to fight a battle and do what the soldiers would have done, but it’s just acting.”

“A game?”

“No, not a game.  They use it to teach people about history, but sometimes they just do it for fun.”

“And they wear old clothes?”

“They wear what people would’ve worn a long time ago.  The kinds of clothes their ancestors wore.”

He thought about all this for two or three seconds…and then he started laughing hysterically.

The notion that adults would put on historical clothing and pretend to shoot at each other for fun was absurd to him.  Most of the other students were just as perplexed.  They were looking at me like I’d just told them that some Americans liked to put on Mickey Mouse ears and fling salad dressing at each other.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve sort of assumed that reenacting was an essentially Western and white phenomenon, basically limited to the U.S. and Europe.  But a few days ago I ran across something in an unexpected source.

I’ve been reading a biography of Barnum Brown, one of the twentieth century’s most famous fossil hunters and a longtime collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  (He’s the guy who found the type specimen of T. rex.)  Brown was a product of the frontier, born in Kansas in 1873. In 1889, he set out with his dad on a wagon trip across the West to find a new home for the family. On July 4 they arrived at the Little Bighorn in time to see the Crow Indians engaged in what Brown’s biographers term a “reenactment” of Custer’s defeat.

Here’s how Brown described it years later, as quoted in the biography:

Although this tribe had always been friendly to the whites, the Commandant was taking no chance, so he had two companies of the garrison under arms, and two Gatling guns trained on the battleground.

I well remember the occasion: squaws with papooses on their backs or in their laps sat all around the edge of the battlefield….

That’s pretty much all the book has to say about this event, but it’s a fascinating passage.  I’d never heard of any Native American tribe recreating a battle.

I poked around a little and found a similar reference in another book.  In her examination of memory and Little Bighorn, Debra Buchholtz says the Crow “were the first to reenact the fight in the immediate battlefield vicinity” on July 4, 1891 with Indians playing Custer’s men as well as the Native Americans.  That would have been two years to the day after Brown claimed he saw an Independence Day reenactment; maybe Brown had his dates wrong, or maybe this was some kind of annual event.

The Crow weren’t the only people reenacting the battle around that time.  Buffalo Bill Cody was staging portrayals of Little Bighorn for his traveling show.  Buchholtz also refers to a 1902 reenactment in Wyoming between Indians and a National Guard unit and another with both whites and Native Americans at the Crow Fair in 1909.  But it’s the notion of the all-Indian reenactments at the battleground, held only a little more than a decade after the real thing, that fascinates me.

What was the impetus behind it, and how did the participants’ motives for staging it compare to the motivations of modern-day reenactors?  What role did this reenactment play in Native American culture, and how different would it be from the role of reenacting in modern American culture?

By Michael Barera (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Arguing over Benedict Arnold

The U.S. ambassador to Britain, puzzled by a plaque marking Benedict Arnold’s last residence in London, wondered why it refers to Arnold as an “AMERICAN PATRIOT.”

NBC News has found the guy who got it put there: a distant relative named Peter Arnold.

“I think he was a good guy, you see. I don’t see him in the same light as so many Americans do,” Arnold told NBC News, explaining that he didn’t mean to upset anyone with his plaque — or create a diplomatic incident.

Arnold said he has received telephone death threats — gruff American voices telling him he’s a traitor just like his ancestors. But he’s amused by them and used to other interpretations of Benedict Arnold and his deeds.

“His heart was in America and he felt that what he was doing was in the interest of America as a country and the people who lived there. And at the end of the day he didn’t think we should be divorced from England and the king,” he said. “So somebody loved us!”

I’m not sure I share Peter Arnold’s appraisal of his distant kinsman. Benedict Arnold was an extraordinarily brave man, one of the most enterprising and gifted officers in the Continental Army. If we’re going to remember Benedict Arnold as an “American Patriot,” we should do so for his exploits from 1775 through 1777.  His eventual decision to offer his services to the British wasn’t exactly an act of pure principle, as Peter Arnold seems to indicate.

Having said that, I find it downright bizarre that Americans are apparently taking the trouble to contact Peter Arnold by phone and threaten him over something that happened more than two centuries ago. I’m more interested in the Rev War than most people, but there is such a thing as being a bit too emotionally invested in a subject.

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Revolutionary roots and branches

Check out this chart of the American Revolution, with the causes depicted as the roots of a tree, various milestones listed along the trunk, and branches for each year of the war sprouting into smaller limbs for the important battles.

As the writer for Slate notes, it’s a little weird to see Arnold’s treason listed on the trunk alongside the two Continental Congresses, Washington’s assumption of command, and the French alliance.  Arnold’s treachery was a big deal, but consider everything that was happening on southern battlefields that same year.

It’s also interesting to see the adoption of the U.S. flag listed on the trunk.  And take note of what isn’t there—the creation of the navy, for example.  Too bad the chart doesn’t have a publication date.

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“This is our Tahrir Square”

Here’s an article on a young Egyptian revolutionary’s visit to Boston.  “This is our Tahrir Square,” his host told him at the site of the 1770 massacre.

The whole premise raises some interesting issues about the nature of revolutions and historical memory, but mostly it makes me want to go history tripping in Boston again.

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