Category Archives: American Revolution

Founders on Broadway

Everybody loves the new musical about Alexander Hamilton, including a lot of prominent historians.

If Hamilton seems an unlikely subject for a musical, keep in mind that this isn’t the first time somebody has set the Founders to music and put them on a stage.  One of the all-time best films about the Revolution originated as a Broadway show.

The first time I saw the movie version of 1776, it was totally by accident.  This was back when I was a teenager, before I’d developed any kind of serious interest in history.  In the summer I used to stay up to watch Letterman and the other talk shows, and then I’d flip through the channels for a while before dozing off.  One night (or in the wee hours of the morning, I suppose) I happened to land on a movie channel right before 1776 came on.

Next thing I knew the stodgy figures from all those old paintings were alive—bickering about the heat, swapping insults, longing for their wives, and occasionally bursting out in song.  It humanized the Founders without diminishing their achievement, it was hilarious without trivializing the events it depicted, and it somehow made the unfolding of history seem contingent and uncertain.

I don’t know why I got such a kick out of it; I wasn’t a fan of American history or musicals at the time.  But now that I look back, seeing that movie was one of the things that got me interested in the American Revolution.  Seeing 1776 didn’t turn me into a history nut overnight, but it was definitely a step along the road to where I am now.  Maybe if I’d been in the habit of going to bed at a decent hour, I’d be in a different line of work.

On a related note, the Spanish version of Evita with Paloma San Basilio is so good it’ll knock you right on your keister.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

A visit with the Ramseys

Francis Alexander Ramsey was a Pennsylvania native who arrived in Tennessee around the end of the Revolutionary War, got involved in the Franklin movement, served as clerk of the Southwest Territory, and was a founding trustee of what eventually became the University of Tennessee.  About the same time that Tennessee became a state, he hired an English carpenter named Thomas Hope to build a fine home of pink marble and blue limestone at Swan Pond, his plantation near Knoxville at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers.  The house is still there, and a few days ago I decided it was high time I saw it in person.

IMG_1146

Ramsey House is one of the most beautifully constructed and restored of all the historic house museums I’ve visited.  Once referred to as “the most costly and most admired building in Tennessee,” it would have been quite a bit more substantial than most of the other homes on the frontier near the turn of the nineteenth century.  The quality of Hope’s craftsmanship is evident in the limestone trim and the carved corbels underneath the roof corners.

IMG_1145

Cabins and small homes on the early Tennessee frontier typically had kitchens that were either detached from the main house or linked to it by a covered dogtrot.  Ramsey House’s kitchen, by contrast, is attached to the main structure.  The tour guide told me this was at the insistence of Francis Ramsey’s wife.

IMG_1147

The interior is just as impressive as the exterior, furnished with period pieces that include some Ramsey family items, like the Chippendale chairs and tea service in one of the downstairs rooms.

IMG_1142

When Francis died in 1820, the house passed to his oldest son William, Knoxville’s first elected mayor.  William later sold the home to his brother, the eminent doctor, historian, and public works booster J.G.M. Ramsey, who in turn gave it to his son as a wedding present in 1857 and moved a short distance away to his own estate of Mecklenburg.

The house’s link to J.G.M. Ramsey was one of the main reasons I wanted to see it, since every aficionado of early Tennessee history is bound to cross paths with him sooner or later.  Although his contributions to the state’s transportation development and finance were considerable, Ramsey’s role as chronicler of Tennessee’s past was probably his most important legacy.  Some of the most prominent players in Tennessee’s formative years were guests at Ramsey House when J.G.M. was growing up, and he developed a passionate interest in the Volunteer State’s history, reflected in his massive collection of manuscripts and books.  The crowning achievement of this historical work was his massive Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1853 and still an invaluable resource for students of the early southwestern frontier.

Above all else, he was a committed believer in states’ rights and a defender of southern interests, serving as a Confederate treasury agent on the outbreak of the Civil War.  His zealous support for secession ended up taking a tremendous toll on his family.  The Union occupation of Knoxville in 1863 forced him to flee Mecklenburg, his daughter was exiled from the city, and his youngest son Arthur was one of the many Tennessee troops killed in action at Piedmont, VA in June 1864.

One wartime loss was as devastating for later Tennessee historians as it must have been to Ramsey personally—a Union arsonist put Mecklenburg to the torch, and its priceless collection of historical papers and relics went up in smoke.  Ramsey himself blamed his nemesis William Brownlow, an outspoken Unionist with whom he had been at odds since before the war, for instigating the arson.  One of the reasons Ramsey’s Annals is such an important resource is because much of the primary material that went into the work went up in flames along with his home.  (Speaking as somebody who could’ve made use of those documents, I can tell you that if I find the arsonist in the afterlife, there’s going to be trouble.)

After the war, Ramsey was able to get a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson.  The family eventually returned to Knoxville, but J.G.M.’s son sold the ancestral home in 1866.  The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities acquired it in 1952 and furnished it to match the period of Francis Ramsey’s occupancy, using items donated by descendants and an inventory of the patriarch’s estate.

In addition to the house, the site has a small visitor center with a gift shop, an exhibit of family relics and archaeological materials excavated on the grounds, and a short film.  I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area; it’s an architectural gem and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of one of Tennessee’s most important families.

You might also want to visit the site of Lebanon-in-the-Fork Presbyterian Church, just a couple of miles from Ramsey House.  Rev. Samuel Carrick established Lebanon-in-the-Fork in 1791, making it the oldest Presbyterian church in Knox County.  The church building is gone, but the graveyard is well worth a look.  The grave of Carrick’s widow is Knox County’s earliest marked burial, dating to 1793.

IMG_1157

Several generations of Ramseys are also buried here: Francis…

IMG_1156

J.G.M….

IMG_1154

…and young Arthur.

IMG_1155

Also in the Ramsey plot is a memorial for Reynolds Ramsey, father of Francis and a veteran of the Revolutionary War who was at Trenton and Princeton.  J.G.M. remembered his grandfather as a “tall and graceful” man who “never entered a room with his hat on and never retired from it without a graceful bow and a modest and sincere adieu.”  I suspect it was J.G.M. himself, with his interest in history, who made sure his grandfather’s tombstone mentioned his Rev War service.

IMG_1153

Reynolds isn’t the only Rev War veteran buried at Lebanon-in-the-Forks.

IMG_1152

Jeremiah Jack, another Rev War vet buried in the churchyard, was one of Knoxville’s early settlers.  Ramsey’s Annals includes a brief account of a canoe trip Jack and another man made to Coyatee to purchase corn from the Cherokees:

During the infancy of the settlements on Nollichucky, corn had become scarce, and availing themselves of a short suspension of hostilities, Jeremiah Jack and William Rankin, of Greene county, descended the river in a canoe, for the purpose of bartering with the Indians for corn. They reached Coiatee without interruption. The warriors of that place refused to exchange or sell the corn, and manifested other signs of suspicion, if not of open enmity. They entered the canoe and lifted up some wearing apparel lying in it, and which covered their rifles. This discovery increased the unwillingness of the Indians to trade, and they began to show a disposition to offer violence to their white visitants. The beloved woman, Nancy Ward, was happily present, and was able by her commanding influence to appease their wrath, and to bring about friendly feelings between the parties. The little Indians were soon clad in the home made vestments brought by the traders—the canoe was filled with corn, and the white men started on their return voyage well pleased with the exchange they had made, and especially with the kind offices of the beloved woman. On their return, the white men landed and camped one night, a mile above the mouth of French Broad, on the north bank of the little sluice of that river. Mr. Jack was so well pleased with the place, that he afterwards selected it as his future residence, and actually settled and improved it on his emigration to the present Knox county, in 1787.

IMG_1151

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Archaeology, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:

IMG_1509

Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:

IMG_1511

Grand French Battery:

IMG_1512

The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:

IMG_1513

Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:

IMG_1515

Site of the French artillery park:

IMG_1516

An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:

IMG_1518

The Victory Monument:

IMG_1519

One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:

IMG_1521

In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:

IMG_1522

Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…

IMG_1523

…but the effects of the originals are still evident:

IMG_1524

Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:

IMG_1525

Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:

IMG_1526

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

Military history is on exhibit in Ohio

If you’re in Ohio and you’re a military history buff, there are a couple of special exhibits in your neck of the woods that are worth checking out.

The Toledo Museum of Art is hosting The American Civil War: Through Artists’ Eyes until July 5.  This exhibit features paintings, sculptures, photos, and artifacts from the museum’s own collection, as well as items from the William L. Clements Library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, and other repositories that tell the story of Ohioans’ involvement in the war.

One of the highlights is Gilbert Gaul’s 6′ x 10′ painting Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor, on loan from the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society.

Civil War_1

Gilbert Gaul (American, 1855–1919), Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor. Oil on canvas, 1893. Framed: 10 x 6 ft. (305 x 183 cm). Lent by the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society. Photo courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Photos by Gardner, copies of Volk’s cast of Lincoln’s hands, and a sword carried by Rutherford B. Hayes are in the exhibit, too.  Definitely worth a visit if you’re into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice…

…sorry, at the Cincinnati Museum Center, Treasures of Our Military Past just opened this week.  This exhibition covers more than two hundred years’ worth of military history from the Cincy region.  John Holt’s broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, one of only four surviving copies, is the star attraction.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Learn about the American Revolution by blasting merrily away at things

One way to get schoolkids excited about history is to give them guns and let them blast the ever-loving crap out of stuff:

Craver Middle School students traded the classroom for the gun range Wednesday as part of a week-long course about the Revolutionary War.

Instructors say the gun-safety class is about showing the 6th to 8th graders how important marksmanship was to winning a war against the era’s most powerful army. 30 students got to participate at the Avondale Clay and Gun Club, and they were able to shoot down “redcoat” targets with their rifles.

Appleseed volunteers and Revolutionary War re-enactors are leading the intensive course, which is one of nine different options at Craver. The instructors brought real guns into the classroom Monday and Tuesday before heading to the range to show how things worked in the 1700’s.
“They showed us the Revolutionary War and how we fought to be Americans,” says Riley Prichard, 13. “It was pretty cool.”

“We’ve learned about the guns they used back in the Revolutionary War,” adds Shelby Plattner, 12. “They came out and shot some of the guns and shot some of the muskets when we were out on the field.”

When I first read this, I assumed they were letting kids do live fire exercises with reproduction flintlock muskets, which would instantly make this the most awesome middle school history lesson of all time.  But in the video, it looks like all the kids are shooting modern rifles.

It turns out the organization that evidently facilitated this event somehow combines marksmanship instruction with Rev War history and civics.  I’m not entirely sure how that’s supposed to work.  Their instructors use David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere book, and being a huge Fischer fan I’ve got to give them props for that.  But if the minutemen had been packing hardware with scopes and magazines, you’ve got to wonder whether any redcoats at all would’ve made it back to Boston.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

What to do with one of Benedict Arnold’s sunken boats?

If you’ve been to the National Museum of American History, you’ve probably seen the Rev War gunboat Philadelphia.  She was one of the vessels in the flotilla Benedict Arnold assembled in 1776 to try to keep the British from descending Lake Champlain and cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.

Arnold’s makeshift fleet met the British at the Battle of Valcour Island that October.  They lost the battle, but did buy the American cause some precious time.  With winter looming, the British were unable to keep advancing southward, and when they finally took another crack at the Champlain-Hudson corridor the next year, they ended up at Saratoga.

Lorenzo Hagglund found Philadelphia‘s wreck in 1935, and she ended up at the Smithsonian.  In 1997 researchers found another boat from Arnold’s flotilla, the Spitfire, sitting upright at the bottom of Lake Champlain.  She’s still there, and now they’re trying to figure out what to do with her:

“This is not a sexy boat,” said Art Cohn, the emeritus director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum who is now writing a management plan for the Spitfire that he will submit to the U.S. Navy. “It was relatively small, flat-bottomed and quickly built, but that’s not its value.”

“The principal value, in my opinion, is it connects us to 1776 and the formative years of this country,” he said.

For years, the bottom — Cohn won’t say exactly where the Spitfire rests or how far down — has been thought of as the safest place for the Spitfire, thanks to the protection of the cold, deep water above it.

Now the fear is of a looming threat from the invasive species quagga mussels, which could destroy the wreck. They haven’t arrived yet in Lake Champlain, but experts fear it’s only a matter of time.

Cohn’s plan will include recommendations for the future of the Spitfire, including possibly leaving it where it is or raising it, preserving it and then displaying it in a museum. He hasn’t chosen a course yet, but his worry over the mussels is clear.

“Our concern over the length of this study has really been elevated based on what we’re learning about the implications of the mussel invasion. That information is sobering and a concern,” Cohn said. “As we move toward final recommendations our goal is to try to develop a strategy so that this shipwreck survives for future generations.”

Those doggone Ukranian mussels.  Oh, well.  Maybe we’ll get another cool Rev War gunboat exhibit out of this.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution