Historical connections pop up in weird places. The other night I indulged in a repeat viewing of The Duchess, an eighteenth-century romantic biopic about Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
I made a point of seeing The Duchess when it hit theaters last year, for three reasons. First, it’s based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography of Georgiana. This is one of those books I keep intending to read but somehow don’t get around to. I figured seeing the movie would make me feel a little less guilty about it.
Second, I could think of far less pleasant ways to spend my time than watching Keira Knightley prance around for a couple of hours.
Third, this movie offered the potential for some interesting Revolutionary War cameos. One member of Georgiana’s circle of gal pals was the actress Mary Robinson. Robinson had a well-publicized fling with Banastre Tarleton, who’s most famous for wreaking havoc throughout the South as a cavalry commander during the British campaigns of 1780-81. I wondered if the filmmakers would include Tarleton in the cast of characters. He was, after all, a major character in 2006’s Amazing Grace, owing to his vocal opposition to abolishing the slave trade while in Parliament. (In a nice authentic touch, Amazing Grace‘s Tarleton has a few missing fingers, owing to a wound he suffered in North Carolina in March 1781.)
Tarleton was a no-show in The Duchess. But, to my surprise, another British veteran of the War for American Independence did put in an appearance: Major General Charles Grey.
To American history aficionados, he’s more popularly known as “No-flint Grey,” due to his controversial victory over Anthony Wayne at Paoli, PA on September 20, 1777. The “Paoli Massacre,” like Tarleton’s victory at Waxhaws, is one of those controversial engagements that made for great American propaganda during the war. Before leading his men on a surprise night attack against Wayne’s Continentals, Grey had the flints removed from their muskets to prevent them from firing their weapons and accidentally alerting the Americans. The British stormed the camp and laid into Wayne’s men with their bayonets and swords, killing 53 of them and wounding or capturing somewhere around 200.
Grey’s use of stealth and steel proved successful, but Americans accused him of perpetrating a cold-blooded massacre. The “No-flint” moniker stuck, and “Remember Paoli” became an American motto. In fact, the nation’s second oldest Rev War monument was erected on the site in 1817, and another was added sixty years later. Today it’s one of the most well-preserved Revolutionary War sites in the country.
So what in the world is “No-flint” Grey doing in a period romance film? Much of the movie focuses on Georgiana’s affair with Grey’s son and namesake, a prominent member of the Whig party and future prime minister. When the two finally had a daughter together Georgiana had to turn the baby over to Grey’s parents to be raised. In the movie, when she and a friend take a carriage ride out to a desolate spot to turn over the infant, “No-flint” Grey is the guy who shows up.
You wouldn’t expect a movie like this to have anything to do with military history, but there it is. And if that’s not enough, the actor playing Grey has “Shrapnel” for a last name. Coincidence?
(Grey portrait from the UK’s National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons)