Tag Archives: Revolutionary War

Bigger and bigger battlefields

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan noted how the environment of combat changed over the course of history.  One way it changed in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is immediately apparent—battles got a whole lot bigger.

If you had four and a half hours to lead a tour of a major Civil War battlefield, what would you highlight?  You’d never have this problem with a Rev War battlefield, at least not a Southern Campaign site.  You could probably lead three back-to-back-to-back tours of King’s Mountain or Cowpens in four and a half hours.

Take a look at King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Gettysburg on Google Maps, all at the same zoom level.  The Cowpens field would likely fit between the Round Tops and Emmitsburg Road, and I think you’d still have room for King’s Mountain.

Numbers engaged illustrate the difference, too.  Greene had something like 4,500 men at Guilford Courthouse; the Confederates fielded ten times that many at Shiloh.  Washington had over 14,000 at Brandywine, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the Union suffered over 12,000 casualties at Antietam.

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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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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

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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Carolina casting call

In a discussion about Turn, a fellow history blogger commented, “If I was king, I would create a series similar to HBO’s Band of Brothers based off John Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse.”  

As a Southern Campaign guy, I would love to see something like this happen.  The expansive canvas of a cable miniseries is perfectly suited to tell the story of the war in the Carolinas.

For the past week, I’ve been wondering which actors could play the major roles. The only one I could come up with is James McAvoy for Patrick Ferguson.  McAvoy is Scottish, he’s close to the age Ferguson was in 1780, and I think he could convey something of Ferguson’s intelligence and determination.

Other than that, I’m stumped.  I tried to come up with a suitable Greene, Cornwallis, Morgan, Tarleton, Sumter, and Marion, but I’ve got nothing.

I thought especially hard about who might play Isaac Shelby and John Sevier. There aren’t many thirty-something American actors working today who could sell me on the notion that a regiment of unruly frontiersmen would follow them across the mountains and into a hail of musket balls. Something tells me the Overmountain Men wouldn’t have been too impressed with Channing Tatum or Hayden Christensen.

Help us out here, Gordon: Who could really bring Nolichucky Jack to life?

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You can find the weirdest stuff in Rev War accounts

From a North Carolina militiaman’s pension declaration:

Not long after & all during said eighteen months service he and others of said Company of Minute Men, captured old Solomon Sparks a celebrated Tory. They employed a Whig from a distant neighborhood and a stranger to said old Tory to decoy him out of his house without his gun under the pretense of being a traveler & inquiring the Road. They succeeded admirably. He fought bravely without arms and considerably injured this Applicant by kicking him. He was sent down the Yadkin in a Canoe. After tied hand and foot on his back he repeatedly hollowed “hurra for King George.”

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First impressions of Turn

Watched the premiere last night, and it was pretty good.  It didn’t grab me by the lapels and yank me off my feet, but I’ll definitely be tuning in again.  I like the fact that it conveys the uncertainties and disruptions the war presented to civilians caught between the two armies.  The impact of the armies’ behavior on civilians’ attitudes and allegiance in the Revolution has long been an interest of mine.

My main criticism at this point is probably the portrayal of British officers.  The haughty, snotty Redcoat officer is something of a stock character in films about the Rev War.  One of the great things about cable drama is the room to develop full, three-dimensional characters.  In Game of Thrones, just about everybody wears a gray hat instead of a white or black one.  Of course, any show which features American spies as its protagonists is bound to have British officers as bad guys, but it would be nice to see a little more subtlety and complexity in the way they’re depicted.  But we’re only one episode in, so we’ll see where things go from here.  So far it’s not bad.

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Avenger ancestry

The guy who plays Captain America can claim patriotic ancestors going all the way back to the Revolutionary War, according to Ancestry.com. Morgan Cryer, a South Carolinian whose pension application you can read here, was his fifth great-granduncle.

Hey, maybe Robert Downey, Jr. is descended from John Ericsson.

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Yes, Virginia, there was a real…um, Virginia

Remember when we looked at the tradition that Patrick Ferguson was keeping two mistresses called “Virginia” in his camp at King’s Mountain, and that one of them died in in the battle and was buried with him?

Well, it seems that George Hofstalar, a veteran of the battle, referred to her in his pension application: “There was also a woman killed & lay by his side & said to [be] his kept mistress.”

So there’s an eyewitness account corroborating the archaeological evidence of a second burial in Ferguson’s grave.  Pretty neat!

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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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