We lost one of America’s finest historians this year.
Some time ago word went around on Twitter that Charles Royster had passed away, but I didn’t see anything official until somebody passed along this obit from the AHA. Royster was Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University.
He completed his Ph.D. at Berkeley under Robert Middlekauff, writing a monumental dissertation—monumental both in its importance and its size—on the Continental Army. The dissertation became the basis of his book A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783, which won the Francis Parkman Prize, the National Historical Society Book Prize, and the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.
That volume alone would have been sufficient to establish him as one of the premier scholars of American history, but his Civil War study The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans was just as acclaimed as his first book, winning both the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. He was also the author of Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution and The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A History of George Washington’s Times.
I first encountered Royster’s work when I was fresh out of college. At that time I was a newly-minted aspiring historian who had decided to study the American Revolution. On a family trip to Williamsburg I found a copy of A Revolutionary People at War in a bookstore. It probably had a bigger impact on me than any academic book I’ve read, whether at that time or since. It was one of my first experiences with a work of history that asked such probing questions and constructed such meaningful answers.
Sometimes, when you’re just beginning to engage with a field, a book will smash its way into your intellect like an asteroid, but then you revisit it later when you’re more seasoned and find the magic’s worn off. You decide it must have made a big impression only because you read it when you were green and had a narrow frame of reference. That’s never been the case with me and A Revolutionary People. Every time I take it off the shelf, it’s as powerful and insightful as it seemed before I started graduate school. To this day, I think it’s an unparalleled analysis of the Continental Army and its role in defining what the Revolution meant.
The SMH devoted a panel to A Revolutionary People at the first academic history conference I ever attended. I heard Royster himself would be there, and brought my copy to ask if he’d sign it. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. I regret that I never got to meet him and thank him for his body of work. But that body of work remains. I’m sure people will be turning to it for as long as there’s an interest in the American past.
Those of you who are hip to Twitter might already be familiar with Historians at the Movies. If you’re not, here’s how it works: A bunch of history folks crank up the same Netflix offering at the same time, and then tweet along using the hashtag #HATM. The brainchild of Jason Herbert, it’s become quite the phenomenon.
People have been clamoring for HATM to take on The Patriot, and this Sunday night it’s finally happening. You’ll want to start the movie at 8:30, but the Twitter commentary usually gets going closer to 8:00.
I’ll be one of many tweeting along, using my professional-ish account @mlynchhist, which I reserve for subjects historical and museological. Anytime there’s an excuse to talk Southern Campaign stuff, I’m all in.
In the sixth installment of Civil War Connect, the ALLM’s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s Jake Wynn discuss medicine and the African American experience in the Civil War.
Longtime readers may recall that we’ve looked at heritage tourism in the American West (and particularly in Tombstone, AZ) a couple of times. This topic came up in a fascinating discussion on social media a few days ago, when Kara McCormack shared a series of tweets about preservation, historical memory, and tourism in Tombstone at the Arizona Historical Society’s Twitter account.
McCormack is the author of Imagining Tombstone, an examination of the ways that popular mythology and the desire for historical authenticity have shaped the town’s preservation and tourism efforts. She notes that the 1940s marked the point when Tombstone boosters really started to play up the O.K. Corral shootout, due to the success of John Ford’s Earp film My Darling Clementine. But while the town has benefited from Hollywood-driven Earpmania, preservationists have struggled to assert the town’s authenticity as a real historic site. Hence “the constant tension between the use of entertainment to attract visitors and the imperative of maintaining #historic #authenticity that the town must negotiate,” as McCormack writes.
As I’ve noted before, it’s been my experience that historic sites associated with gunfighters have a tendency to be kitschier than many other sites. Sometimes it’s to the detriment of a site’s educational value. But does that make the experience of visiting them any less authentic? I don’t think it necessarily does. Just about any historic site is a mixture of “original” and “reconstruction,” and of presenting things the way they were alongside whatever alterations or accommodations are necessary to make it a public facility. Most of us prefer the mixture to be as convincing and unobtrusive as possible. But no matter how it’s done, you’re still on the spot where it all happened, and thus having some type of firsthand, physical engagement with the past.
Anyway, read the whole tweet series. It’s very interesting stuff. (And it looks like I’m going to have to order McCormack’s book, too!)
In the fifth installment of Civil War Connect, the ALLM‘s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine‘s Jake Wynn discuss hospitals during the Civil War.
I just read (and enjoyed) Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution by T. Cole Jones. Like Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence, Jones’s book challenges the popular view of the Revolution as a restrained, limited war waged according to high-minded ideals. While prominent Revolutionaries did indeed envision a humane, restrained war, reports of the mistreatment of American prisoners and British atrocities (whether exaggerated or not) led many Patriots to embrace a more vindictive war of retribution. This had profound and very unfortunate effects for British and Tory prisoners who fell into American hands.
We usually associate the idea of a vindictive, retributive war with the Revolutionary South, and especially the southern backcountry. After the British invasion of South Carolina in 1780, Whigs and Tories engaged in an eye-for-an-eye struggle marked by lynchings, denial of quarter, and other bloody acts of retaliation fueled by a desire for revenge.
Many writers tend to treat this internecine conflict in the backcountry South as an exceptionally nasty deviation from the war as a whole. Jones interprets it differently. “While not denying the violence of the southern campaigns,” he writes, “viewing the treatment of enemy prisoners in the South within the context of prior British and American practice reveals more continuity than disjuncture. Through this lens, the war in the South emerges not as a drastic departure from a limited European-style conflict but as the intense culmination of a process of escalating violence that had begun in the summer of 1776” (p. 189).
Nor were southerners and backcountry settlers the only Americans to mete out impromptu, retributive violence against Tories. “Southern militias were not alone in their practice of terrorizing, torturing, and executing loyalists; northern revolutionaries committed similar acts of vengeance,” Jones writes. “Wherever British forces could project enough power to support loyalist resistance, revolutionary militias and crowds responded with terror and violence” (p. 207).
The work of Jones and Hoock suggests that we need to rethink the ways we write about the Revolution in the South. Maybe it’s time for us to stop asking why the southern experience of the Revolution was so violent and start asking ourselves whether there was really anything exceptional about it. And perhaps the selective nature of American memory about the Revolution’s ferocity illustrates the ways we use regionalization to compartmentalize the past’s unsavory aspects.
The Battle of Waxhaws, from the New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons
In the fourth installment of Civil War Connect, the ALLM‘s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine‘s Jake Wynn discuss nurses in the war.