Tag Archives: Revolutionary War

In book news…

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.

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Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

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.

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Philbrick takes Bunker Hill

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.

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Archaeologists locate site of Carr’s Fort

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 mlynch5396@hotmail.com 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.

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Picture yourself with a Bunker Hill book

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.

  • If you want to enter, pick a number between 1 and 1,775.  Then e-mail it to me (mlynch5396@hotmail.com) no later than 10:00 P.M. EST on May 5.  Use “Bunker Hill Giveaway” as the subject line.
  • When the deadline passes, I’ll use Random.org to generate a completely random number.  The reader whose number comes closest to the one selected by the website wins the book.  If two or more readers pick the same winning number, I’ll have them each select new numbers, and the website will then generate another figure for the tie-breaker.
  • Only one entry per person, please.  Last thing I want is my inbox getting swamped by a zillion e-mails from the same person.
  • Once a winner is selected, I’ll contact him or her via e-mail to get a shipping address so the publisher can send the book.

That’s it.  Good luck, folks.  You may submit your entries startiiiiiiinnnnnggggg…now.

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April 19

Resilient folks, those Bay Staters.

By Aldaron — Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaron (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Is the Gadsden flag too hot to handle?

The city of New Rochelle, NY has confiscated a Gadsden flag that flew outside a local armory due to “unspecified complaints” to the city manager and a request by the city council.  This happened just after the city manager told a group of veterans the flag could remain in place.  The situation is reminiscent of last year’s brouhaha over the Gadsden flags at Gettysburg.

As many commentators have pointed out, the Confederate battle flag is a symbol with multiple meanings because of the various groups that have appropriated it over the years.  Depending on the context, it can stand the Confederacy, the South in general, rebelliousness, racism, segregation, or the “redneck” stereotype.  If you’re going to display the CBF, you have to keep this multiplicity of meanings in mind; the meaning you intend to convey might not be the same one understood by the people who exposed to it.

In the case of the Gadsden flag, though, I think the case is a little different.  The Tea Party adopted the Gadsden flag, but unlike the CBF, the Gadsden flag hasn’t been stewing in its more modern political connotations for decades.  It remains primarily a symbol of the Revolution and America’s commitment to liberty and self-defense, and for that reason I don’t see anything wrong with flying it outside an armory.  But that’s just my opinion.

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Site of the Battle of St. Louis/Ft. San Carlos

They’re building some sort of retail/entertainment complex on top of it.  Not much to see at the actual spot, but there’s a pretty cool mural at the Missouri State Capitol.

Wikimedia Commons

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And speaking of tomahawks…

The most dynamic visual representation of tomahawk combat in modern times is probably the electrifying rescue sequence in The Patriot, in which Mel Gibson turns a detachment of British soldiers into hamburger.

This portrayal of tomahawk fighting is as elegant as it is ugly, equal parts martial art and straightforward butchery. I suspect the reality was a lot more grab-and-hack and less Jackie Chan.

One account of a tomahawk in action—or about to be put into action—comes from the pension application of Charles Bowen, who fought at King’s Mountain. During the battle, Bowen somehow heard that his brother Reese had been killed in action. As he tried to find him, he came across his own captain, dead or dying from a shot to the head. At that point, something in Bowen apparently snapped.

Making his way to a spot “within fifteen or twenty paces of the enemy” and taking cover behind a tree, Bowen shot down a Tory who was attempting to raise a flag of surrender. He was reloading when Col. Benjamin Cleveland approached him and demanded he give the countersign, which was “Buford” (after the commander of a Virginia unit defeated by British dragoons earlier that year). Bowen couldn’t come up with the word, perhaps because he was still in some kind of a berserk rage, so Cleveland assumed he was a Tory. Here’s Bowen’s recollection of what happened next, as transcribed and amended at revwarapps.org:

Col Cleveland instantly leveled his rifle at Declarant’s breast and attempted to fire, but the Gun snapped. Declarant jumped at Cleveland seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head if his arm had not been arrested by a soldier by the name of Beanhannon [sic, Buchanan?], who knew the parties. Declarant immediately recollected the countersign which was “Blueford,” [sic, Buford] named it and Cleveland dropped his gun and clasped Declarant in his arms.

There’s nothing fancy about what Bowen was about to do; he simply “seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head.” If this was typical of tomahawk combat, then that scene from The Patriot is probably too elaborate on the choreography, even though it gets the raw brutality exactly right.

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Want your own antebellum house?

If you do, and you’ve got a hefty wallet, there’s a nice one headed for the auction block in Lincoln County, TN.  And this one gets bonus points for a Rev War connection.  The occupant’s father was Joseph Greer, a King’s Mountain veteran who reportedly carried news of the battle to Philadelphia.  (His compass is on display at the Tennessee State Museum.)

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