Rethinking southern exceptionalism in the Revolutionary 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

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