Washington Crossing Historic Park is getting a new visitor center, and I think it’ll be money well spent.
Tag Archives: Revolutionary War
I used this picture of the third American line at Guilford Courthouse in a slide this week, and one of my students said, “That’s a neat picture.” I think so, too.
The original image is from the U.S. Army Center for Military History; I got it from Wikimedia Commons.
There’s an interesting controversy brewing in the Carolinas.
Advocates in North and South Carolina are fighting to have a region made up of 58 counties recognized as a national heritage area, specifically focusing on the contributions made by the Carolinas during the American Revolution.
The national heritage designation is a way to celebrate, protect and preserve what makes a region unique and can be used as a tool for tourism.
Examples of places with a national heritage designation include the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and Iowa’s Silo and Smokestacks National Heritage Area.
Sounds like a good idea to me. So what’s the problem?
A recent National Park Service study was completed, and the counties were told they did not meet the necessary criteria for the designation.
In the published results, one of the reasons cited was that there is a lack of distinctive cultural traditions in North and South Carolina from the 18th century that have carried over into today’s everyday life. These distinctive characteristics must be readily apparent to an outside observer.
What, I wonder, would constitute a readily apparent and distinctive cultural tradition from the eighteenth century? Knee breeches? Smallpox inoculation?
Carl Borick has a new book out, examining the plight of Revolutionary War prisoners in the South. This one ought to be worth a read. Borick previously published a book on the 1780 siege of Charleston, which I recommend, and organized a fantastic temporary exhibit on the occupation of that city at the Charleston Museum.
…to help preserve early American sites is an idea whose time has come. More info here.
You’re probably aware that a video which apparently shows a group of Marines urinating on enemy corpses in Afghanistan has been getting a good deal of attention lately.
Is there any possibility that we can connect this incident to some obscure bit of Revolutionary War trivia? I’m glad you asked. Supposedly, in the aftermath of the Battle of King’s Mountain, some of the victorious Patriots did the very same thing to the body of Maj. Patrick Ferguson, the Scottish officer who commanded the Tories encamped on top of the ridge.
Assuming it happened—I’ll get to that issue in a second—what could have prompted the militiamen to do such a thing? Backcountry militia weren’t too scrupulous about observing the niceties of military convention, but relieving oneself on the corpse of the enemy commander still seems a little extreme. In the eighteenth century, the bodies of dead soldiers often received callous treatment, but that generally wasn’t the case for officers, as Caroline Cox explains in her examination of life in the Continental Army.
In trying to account for the Whigs’ behavior, some commentators cite a proclamation Ferguson issued to rally the backcountry Tories when he discovered that the militiamen were on his trail. It read in part as follows: “The Backwater men have crossed the mountains; McDowell, Hampton, Shelby, and Cleveland are at their head, so that you know what you have to depend upon. If you choose to be p—d upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.” According to this line of thinking, the Whigs who urinated on Ferguson’s body were indulging in a bit of poetic justice. What insult could be more fitting than to urinate on the body of a man who warned Carolinians that they’d be “p—d upon forever and ever” if the Whigs prevailed?
Interestingly enough, this most inflammatory part of Ferguson’s circular got watered down in later accounts. Many nineteenth-century historians who quoted it altered “p—d upon” to something more palatable to a genteel audience. J.G.M. Ramsey and Lyman Draper changed it to “degraded,” while Washington Irving used “trodden upon.”
If you ask me, the question of what might have prompted the victors of King’s Mountain to urinate on Ferguson’s corpse is probably moot, because I can’t find any eyewitnesses who said it actually happened. As far as I can tell, the oldest source that mentions any desecration of Ferguson’s body is a 1787 book by Banastre Tarleton, the controversial young officer who commanded the British Legion. He wrote, “The mountaineers, it is reported, used every insult and indignity, after the action, towards the dead body of Major Ferguson, and exercised horrid cruelties on the prisoners that fell into their possession.” Tarleton wasn’t there, but he could have gotten the details from some of the defeated Tories, since many of them escaped during the march northward and made their way back to British-held territory.
None of this is to say that it couldn’t have happened; the aftermath of the Battle of King’s Mountain was notably ugly, even by the standards of the nasty partisan war that erupted in the Carolina backcountry. Through some combination of rage, confusion, and ignorance, the Whigs continued to fire into the ranks of the surrendering Tories as the battle wound down, and during the march away from King’s Mountain they continued to plunder, beat, and slaughter their vanquished enemies. Loyalist newspapers printed accounts of the horrors the prisoners endured, including letters from those members of Ferguson’s outfit who were lucky enough to survive the ordeal. The controversy over treatment of the prisoners made it all the way up to the armies’ commanders; Cornwallis complained about the Whigs’ behavior in a letter to his American counterpart, who responded that if Patriots were committing outrages against British troops, they were simply giving as good as they got.
Whether or not those outrages included urinating on the body of a fallen officer, the whole episode demonstrates that debates over soldiers’ conduct in wartime aren’t new, and it probably won’t stop when the seemingly endless War on Terror finally grinds to a halt.
Richard Rapaport shows us why hard-hitting journalists make the big bucks:
At the start of the Revolution, South Carolina informed the Continental Congress that it would refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence unless slavery was recognized. South Carolina even demanded the right to disregard an embargo on trade with Great Britain agreed to by the 12 other colonies. It was an exemption that allowed South Carolina to maintain its lucrative rice trade and remain among the richest colonies throughout the Revolution, which it largely sat out, happily occupied by the British army.
Um, South Carolina didn’t exactly sit that one out, dude. The Palmetto State possibly played host to more Rev War engagements than any of the thirteen. By one estimate, almost one-fifth of all combat deaths in the entire war took place in South Carolina during the last two years of fighting. “Happily occupied” is a most inappropriate description of a state riven by bloody partisan warfare for much of 1780 and 1781.
Granted, this has little bearing on his larger point, which is that South Carolina has been and continues to be a state which is off its collective rocker. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that this reputation for extremism has been overstated. The evidence Rapaport presents—a restriction of the right of manumission in the colonial period, rampant secessionism in the mid-1800′s, and so on—doesn’t really indicate a greater degree of lunacy than that found in any other state’s history. I’m not sure how a social scientist would account for centuries of sustained kookery on such a scale. Some heretofore unidentified Lamarckian process—an inheritance of acquired political characteristics? Something in the water?
Oh, well. Not being a South Carolinian myself, I suppose I don’t have much at stake in the matter. I do travel to the Palmetto State on a fairly regular basis, and wouldn’t at all mind taking up residence there, so that probably explains why the article irked me. That, and one other thing: Rapaport’s byline describes him as a “Bay Area writer.” Surely San Franciscans above all people should hesitate before diagnosing an entire population with psychosis? People who live in glass houses, etc.
Perhaps nothing illustrates a declining awareness of American history than often-asked queries from young and old posed to Revolutionary War reenactors at flintlock target shoots, battle reenactments and educational living history presentations.
The questions: Were you at Gettysburg? Do you go to Gettysburg?
They weren’t. And they don’t.
They politely note they are highlighting the 18th-century American Revolution and not the 19th-century American Civil War.
“We see a lot of people who are not aware of this basic part of American history,” said Donald F. Yost, 53, of Robeson Township, joining three friends in period clothing of the First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line one cold December Sunday morning as they practiced drills and hiked at French Creek State Park in Union Township.
This is probably as good an occasion as any to relate a war story from my first stint of museum employment. I’m often asked to tell it in small gatherings; indeed, it’s acquired something of a mythic status among my acquaintances. I swear this actually happened, although if it hadn’t happened to me personally I probably wouldn’t believe it myself.
Like most small museums, this one had a tiny staff. Instead of hiring somebody to man the front counter on a full-time basis we all used to rotate weekends, with each staff member minding the store every fifth or sixth Saturday and Sunday. On one of my weekends an upbeat, somewhat heavyset man—he was probably in his sixties—walked in, folded his hands on the counter, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the beach?”
I should note that this museum is located near the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, some 350 miles from the nearest coastline. I naturally assumed that this was a lame attempt at humor and managed a polite chuckle.
Dead silence. The guy stood there with an expectant look on his face.
“Um, you’re serious,” I said.
“Yeah. About how far is it?”
I said that it depended on which beach he intended to visit. He said, “Virginia. The beach in Virginia.”
“You mean Virginia Beach?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. We’re from Virginia, and we’re trying to get to the beach.”
This man lived in Virginia, and in an attempt to get to Virginia Beach, he had driven southwestward into Tennessee, away from the coast.
I informed him that I couldn’t give him street-by-street directions from Harrogate, TN to Virginia Beach, since that wasn’t the sort of information I carried around in my head. But I told him that the first thing he needed to do was go back the way he came, since if he continued on his present course he’d cross the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies before arriving at a beach, and when he got there it would be the wrong one. At that point he thanked me and walked back out the door.
I don’t know if he ever made it to the beach. For that matter, I don’t know how he managed to reach retirement age without winnowing himself out of the gene pool.
A post at American Creation directs our attention to some remarks on George Washington by the late Murray Rothbard, who lambasted the commander of the Continental Army for his attempts to “crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces.”
Rothbard was correct in noting that when Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army, it was a relatively undisciplined and egalitarian organization, at least by the standards of most eighteenth-century armies. He was also correct that Washington wanted to conform the army more closely to contemporary European models. Rothbard argued that these measures were unwarranted and imperious:
To introduce a hierarchy of ruling caste, Washington insisted on distinctive decorations of dress in accordance with minute gradations of rank. As one observer phrased it: “New lords, new laws. … The strictest government is taking place, and great distinction is made between officers and soldier. Everyone is made to know his place and keep it.” Despite the great expense involved, he also tried to stamp out individuality in the army by forcing uniforms upon them; but the scarcity of cloth made this plan unfeasible.
At least as important as distinctions in decoration was the introduction of extensive inequality in pay. Led by Washington and the other aristocratic southern delegates, and over the objections of Massachusetts, the Congress insisted on fixing a pay scale for generals and other officers considerably higher than that of the rank and file.
In addition to imposing a web of hierarchy on the Continental Army, Washington crushed liberty within by replacing individual responsibility by iron despotism and coercion. Severe and brutal punishments were imposed upon those soldiers whose sense of altruism failed to override their instinct for self-preservation. Furloughs were curtailed and girlfriends of soldiers were expelled from camp; above all, lengthy floggings were introduced for all practices that Washington considered esthetically or morally offensive. He even had the temerity to urge Congress to raise the maximum number of strikes of the lash from 39 to the enormous number of 500; fortunately, Congress refused.
Distinctions of rank, uniformity of appearance, differentials in pay, the employment of coercion. I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like…an army.
The “yeah, so?” factor seems to be a recurring issue in libertarian-oriented historical polemics. I’m reminded of Thomas DiLorenzo’s work on Lincoln. There’s nothing really new or useful added to the mix in terms of what we know about the past. The only original ingredient is the author’s opinion that the developments in question were for the worst. It’s a sort of inverse Whig interpretation of history, a narrative of regression away from freedom and toward authoritarianism.
Rothbard was of the opinion that Washington should have left well enough alone and allowed the Americans to fight a people’s partisan war, since “they were not professional soldiers, and they were needed at their homes and jobs and on their farms. Had they been a frankly guerrilla army, there would have been no conflict between these roles.” And yet there was a conflict between the roles of partisan warrior and civilian farmer. We know this because the militia who fought without joining the regular Continental Army tried to balance these roles, and their inability to be in two places at once—embodied in the field and back at their homes—was one of the most important limitations on their effectiveness.
Could a people’s partisan army have won the war on its own? Some contemporaries thought so, at least at first; Gen. Charles Lee, one of the army’s most controversial officers, advocated something like this approach. But as time passed, it became increasingly apparent to many observers that a regular, embodied force was the critical component of the American war effort. Undisciplined militiamen were indeed capable of achieving remarkable victories, but only under the proper conditions, when factors like terrain, the tactical situation, and timing coalesced in their favor (i.e., the retreat from Concord and King’s Mountain). Irregular partisans also made critical contributions outside the bounds of large-scale engagements, especially in the South, where they cut up small enemy detachments and suppressed the Tories on whom the British depended for support. But as Gen. Nathanael Greene pointed out, “the salvation of this Country don’t depend upon little strokes…Partizan strokes in war are like the garnish of a table, they give splendor to the Army…but they afford no substantial national security.”
Rothbard, I think, made the same mistake which contemporary advocates of a home-grown American genius for partisan warfare made. The hardy frontier riflemen who could pick off British soldiers from a vast distance and then vanish into the woods played an indispensable part in the American victory, but they didn’t do so alone. More importantly, they weren’t typical of the American population. Revolutionary America needed a regular army to win the war, and that army had to be molded into a force capable of going multiple rounds with the British, something Washington and the other Continental commanders came to realize. The measures they took to bring this about may have been restrictive and authoritarian, but if you value individualism above all else, then it’s unlikely that any hardened fighting force is going to be congenial to you.