Daily Archives: December 13, 2010

Feeling right, wrong, and right again

Sometimes historical research can take you on an emotional rollercoaster. Here’s a personal example.

For my master’s thesis, I looked at evolving interpretations of the Battle of King’s Mountain from the time of the war itself through the late nineteenth century (the late nineteenth century being the time, I argued, when most of the popular perceptions about the battle took shape).  In the last chapter I examined the conceptions about Appalachia that emerged after the Civil War and the role these notions played in shaping the way Americans remembered the Patriots who fought in the battle.

One of my contentions was that over the course of the late 1800’s, East Tennessee basically claimed the Battle of King’s Mountain as its own.  This was partly inevitable; many of the men who fought came from what is now East Tennessee, the two officers who were most active in organizing the expedition led contingents from that area, and the battle was the (future) Volunteer State’s most significant contribution to American victory in the Revolution.

But there were other reasons why the legacy of King’s Mountain fell to East Tennessee.  Other states involved in the battle didn’t emphasize it as heavily as Tennessee did.  The largest contingent of troops at King’s Mountain was a group of Virginians serving under Col. William Campbell, and it was Campbell who served as honorary commander of the expedition.  Campbell and his Virginians, however, didn’t figure prominently in traditional histories of the Revolution written by Virginians.  I argued that Virginia chroniclers neglected the battle because they had bigger fish to fry.  If you want to portray the Revolution as a great day for the Old Dominion, you can always point to Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Yorktown.  King’s Mountain had to take a backseat.

More surprising to me was what I found when I examined nineteenth-century accounts of the war written by South Carolinians.  The battleground is in the Palmetto State, and South Carolina militia fought on both sides in the battle, some of them not far from their own homes.  Yet South Carolina historians of the 1800’s weren’t as gung-ho about King’s Mountain as the Tennesseans were, either.  There were some impressively lengthy accounts in some period books, but King’s Mountain didn’t seem as central to South Carolina’s memory of the war as it did to Tennessee’s, at least not to me.  I figured the reason was similar to that for the Virginia accounts.  There were so many engagements fought in South Carolina (including pivotal battles like the bombardment of Ft. Moultrie and Cowpens) that King’s Mountain was one turning point among several.  For Tennesseans, it was the pinnacle of the war effort.

Since East Tennessee claimed the battle, writers of the late 1800’s interpreted it through the lens of the Appalachian stereotypes that were emerging at that very time.  The battle’s memory therefore became regionalized.  It became a victory won by mountaineers from Appalachian Tennessee.  That, at least, was my argument.  I revised that thesis chapter for an article which Tennessee Historical Quarterly was kind enough to publish, and seeing it in printed form was very gratifying.

After the article came out a few things occurred to me that caused me to wonder whether I had overstated my argument.  Specifically, I started to get nervous that I had underestimated the degree to which South Carolina had tried to claim the battle, too.

First, one of the oldest monuments on any Revolutionary War battlefield sits by the side of the ridge.  Erected in 1815, it commemorates the death of Maj. William Chronicle and some of his fellow South Carolinians, shot while charging up the slope.  This monument pre-dates the period when Tennesseans laid claim to King’s Mountain, but it indicates that South Carolinians had made King’s Mountain an early priority.

The Chronicle marker on the left, with a modern replacement on the right

More troubling to my case was the dedication of the U.S. Monument, a gorgeous obelisk erected on top of the ridge in 1909.  While the monument was, as its name implies, a national project, the dedication ceremony for it was a predominantly local show, since it was mostly folks from the surrounding area who showed up.  Here was more evidence of South Carolina staking a claim to the battleground, and this time at the very end of the era when I’d argued that Tennessee was picking up the ball and running with it.

The U.S. Monument

Since I’d just published an article arguing that, in the decades immediately preceding the dedication, Tennessee had claimed the battle as her own and other states had allowed her to do so, you can understand why I was feeling uneasy.

Then something occurred to me that made me feel a lot better.  In fact, I felt it actually bolstered my case.  The Chronicle marker wasn’t just a monument to South Carolinians.  It was a monument to local heroes.  Chronicle and his men came from the northwestern backcountry part of the state, the same region where the battle took place.  Furthermore, the turnout at the U.S. Monument dedication wasn’t just from South Carolina, but specifically local.  These two examples of commemoration revealed local historical pride, rather than state historical pride.

All this suggested that it was mostly those South Carolinians who had the battlefield in their own backyards who were concerned about commemorating it, not the state as a whole.  South Carolinians in general certainly didn’t ignore the battle, but neither did they emphasize it to the same extent that nineteenth-century Tennesseans did, except for those who lived in the vicinity of where it took place.  The Chronicle marker and the local interest in the U.S. Monument were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Of course, if it had turned out that I was completely wrong about the commemoration of a particular Revolutionary War battle, it wouldn’t exactly have meant the end of civilization as we know it.  But finding some new material that vindicated my research still made me feel a lot better.  I had applied some new information to a case I’d tried to make previously, and it still seemed to stack up, which was a pretty good feeling.

Now the only thing that bugs me is that I didn’t bring this up when I made the argument to begin with…

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