Tag Archives: American Revolution

A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

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A few highlights from Valley Forge

The harshest winter of the war wasn’t 1777-78, but the place where the Continental Army toughed it out has become synonymous with the hardship and perseverance associated with the Revolution.  It’s on every Rev War buff’s bucket list, so I had to take a day off from scanning microfilm to visit while I was in the area.

Valley Forge’s prominent place in American sentiment was evident from the crowds.  Acre for acre, it was possibly the busiest national historical park I’ve visited with the exception of Gettysburg.  It was one of the busiest places in America during the months the army spent there, too.  In fact, the encampment was one of the country’s largest population centers.

The army’s first camp during the siege at Boston was a hodgepodge of structures.  Valley Forge, for all its misery and squalor, at least had standardized cabins laid out in regular lines.

If the reconstructed accommodations for officers look quaint and cozy…

…the prospect of spending weeks in the enlisted men’s quarters is downright chilling.

The memorial arch is one of the most impressive monuments I’ve ever seen at a Rev War site.  Civil War battlefields tend to be more ostentatious in their adornment.

Pennsylvania has its own monument to native son Anthony Wayne.  The army arrived at Valley Forge not long after Wayne’s defeat at Paoli.

Washington had much finer quarters than the common soldiers, but the material perks came with a crushing weight of responsibility.

He shared the home with his “family” of staff and servants, whose accommodations were more modest—though still far preferable to the cramped huts of the enlisted men.

Valley Forge was in the Goldilocks zone for a winter encampment: close enough to occupied Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to provide some security.  The terrain also made it a position amenable to defense.  In the same way, several factors made it an ideal location for the iron production that gave it its name: abundant wood, running water, and ore.  British troops burned the ironworks not long before the Continentals moved in.  Archaeologists dug up traces of the forge in the twentieth century, and some of the bits and pieces are on display near Washington’s headquarters.

Henry Knox set up the artillery park in a spot from which he could rush cannon to any point in the event of an attack.  Luckily for the Americans, the British never mounted an assault on the encampment.  (Sir William Howe wasn’t exactly a go-getter.)  The only combat at Valley Forge was a skirmish between Americans and redcoats before the whole Continental Army moved in.

The place wouldn’t be complete without a monument to Baron von Steuben…

…gazing out over the field where the Continentals celebrated the Franco-American alliance with a feu de joie.

The Washington Memorial Chapel is an active Episcopal church, and one of the loveliest features of any national historical park.

It’s also one of the few churches in the country with its own Rev War archaeology exhibit.

 

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Across the Delaware

The crossing of the Delaware River is probably the Revolutionary War story we cherish the most, or maybe a close second behind Paul Revere’s ride.  Since I’m spending the month within walking distance of the site where it went down, I had to head over and check it out for myself.

Perhaps I should say the sites where it happened, because Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have a historic park on their respective banks of the Delaware devoted to Washington’s crossing.  Here’s the view from Washington Crossing Historic Park in the Keystone State.

Washington’s army made it across without mishap.  I haven’t been so lucky.  A couple of days ago I drove over to New Jersey for some groceries, and I got so caught up in the historic view from the bridge that I forgot how doggone narrow it is.  There went my passenger side mirror.  Looks like I’ll be visiting an auto shop when I get home.

Washington himself stands atop a column near the visitor center, wrapped in his cloak and gazing across the water toward Trenton and the Hessian garrison.

Closer to the riverbank, near the spot where the troops likely embarked, is a more modest monument.

WCHP’s visitor center boasts a relic of the Franco-American alliance.

If you take the tour, you’ll get an up-close look at the Durham boats the reenactors use for the annual commemorative crossing.  They seemed larger in person than I was expecting.

If you peer inside, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of seats.  Leutze was quite right to paint Washington standing.  It’s all those guys sitting around him that make the painting inaccurate.  (Well, that and the sunlight.)

The first time I drove into town, I freaked out when I spotted the McConkey Ferry Inn.  I don’t remember where it was—I think it was that A&E movie with Jeff Daniels—but somewhere I’ve seen a depiction of the crossing where Washington sets up his headquarters here.  It was the one thing at WCHP I was most excited to see.  Turns out it wasn’t Washington’s HQ after all; in fact, it wasn’t even there in 1776.  The oldest parts of the current building date from 1790.  Samuel McConkey was operating a ferry from this spot that Christmas night, but nothing remains of the Rev War-era structure except the basement.  Still, this is a nicely restored building, and well worth a visit.

A few miles down River Road from the McConkey inn and the visitor center is the park’s upper section.  Tradition holds that American troops monitored enemy activity from atop Bowman’s Hill.  There’s little evidence they did so, but at least we got an impressive tower out of the story.  Built during the Great Depression, it commemorates the Continental occupation of the area during the winter of ’76/77.

An ascent to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower gives you a nice view of the region the Americans and Hessians were contending over.

This structure was there during the time of the crossing: the Thompson-Neely House.  Home to a prosperous milling family, it became a hospital for sick and wounded Continentals when the army moved in.  William Washington, who went on to dramatic exploits in the Southern Campaign, spent time here.  So did James Monroe, another Virginia officer who had quite a career ahead of him.

Washington and Monroe made it through that winter alive, but for James Moore, a New York captain of artillery, the Thompson-Neely property was the last stop.  He’s buried not far from the house…

…alongside comrades whose names are unknown.  Moore’s original gravestone is on display in the visitor center.

The graves face the Delaware Canal, which dates to the 1830s.  Ever wonder how the Pennsylvania coal that powered the Industrial Revolution’s factories got from point A to point B?  Here’s your answer.  Boats laden with anthracite were hitched to mules, and the mules walked along the canal bank, pulling the cargo behind through the water.  The advent of steam engines marked a revolution in manufacturing, but it took old-fashioned animal power to keep the machines going.

Over on the New Jersey side of the river is Washington Crossing State Park.  If you’re an artifact aficionado, don’t miss seeing Harry Kels Swan’s exceptional collection of Rev War objects in the museum.  The exhibit cases are packed to bursting with muskets, bayonets, swords, personal items, and documents signed by a who’s who of Revolutionary luminaries.  The officer’s model Ferguson rifle is especially nifty.  (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so no eye candy here.)

While McConkey handled ferry traffic from the Pennsylvania side, Garret Johnson operated the ferry from Jersey.  The Johnson Ferry House is still there, and since it’s just uphill from the riverbank, there’s a good chance Washington and the other high-ranking officers spent time inside, cursing the awful weather and anxiously awaiting the end of the operation.

Here’s the view from the Jersey side, looking back toward Pennsylvania.

While Durham boats carried the troops, the artillery and horses crossed over on flat-bottomed ferry boats like the one you can still see at the New Jersey landing site.

The Garden State has its share of monuments devoted to the crossing, too.

Finally, this trail past the Johnson Ferry House follows the same road the soldiers took to their victory at Trenton—a victory born of equal parts audacity and desperation.

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Crossing into euphoria

Greetings from Washington Crossing, PA!  I’ve settled in for my fellowship here at the David Library of the American Revolution, and I’m blissfully happy.  If there’s a perfect place to do research, I think I’ve found it.

What makes the DLAR exceptional is the concentration of material.  Rather than making a half-dozen trips to far-flung repositories, you can sit under one roof with thousands of books and microfilm reels at your fingertips.

I’m especially lucky to be here while the library is hosting a series of lectures by former fellows.  On Wednesday Holger Hook discussed his new book on violence in the Revolution, which I think will be an important corrective to the notion of a restrained, limited War of Independence.  Next week we’ll hear from Judith L. Van. Buskirk, who will talk about her work on African American soldiers.

Since there are so many important Rev War sites within an hour’s drive—and one just a mile down the road—I’m hoping to do a little historical touring while I’m here.  For now, though, it’s time to dive back into this incomparable collection.

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A visit to Campbell and his 400

East Tennesseans have more or less claimed the Battle of King’s Mountain as their own.  And little wonder.  The architects of the expedition lived in what’s now Tennessee, and the victory over Ferguson was the most dramatic and direct contribution that Tennessee settlers made to American independence.

But the Tennessee troops under John Sevier and Isaac Shelby weren’t the only men who gathered at Sycamore Shoals in September 1780 to march over the Appalachians.  About four hundred Virginians under the command of Col. William Campbell also made the trek to King’s Mountain.  These frontiersmen from the Old Dominion mustered at present-day Abingdon—Wolf Hills, as it was known in the 1700s—for the rendezvous at Sycamore Shoals.

Today you can stroll across the spot from which Campbell and his men set out at Abingdon Muster Grounds.  Having made the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail pilgrimage from Sycamore Shoals to King’s Mountain a few years ago, my cousin and I decided to wrap up the holiday season by hitting the trail’s Virginia leg.

A state historical marker stands across the street from the muster grounds.

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Hey, who’s a good boy?  He’s a good boy!  And you can find him standing under the interpretive signage at the site’s entrance.

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This festooned canine mystified us, but after a bit of Googling, I think it’s part of a local art project.  Check out the map of the Battle of King’s Mountain on his back.

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I was really looking forward to the exhibit in the small interpretive center at the muster grounds.  Alas, I neglected to call ahead and make sure they’d be open on the day we visited.  But seeing the place where Campbell’s men mustered was still worth the trip.

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Abingdon is justly proud of its history.  A downtown mural depicts scenes from the region’s frontier era, including Campbell and his militia’s involvement in the Revolution.

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Since we were in the area, we made the short drive up toward Marion, VA to see the site of Campbell’s home and his final resting place.  They’re a bit hard to find, and they’re also on private property.  If you decide to visit them yourself, be sure to obey the posted signage and be considerate of the folks who live nearby.

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Campbell and his relatives are buried in a small cemetery on a hill overlooking the Aspenvale monument.  After King’s Mountain, Campbell went on to lead backwoods riflemen into battle at Guilford Courthouse and then fought in Virginia under Lafayette before his unexpected death in August 1781.  Relatives moved his remains back to the site of his old home in 1823.  The slab over the grave is a modern replacement, but the epitaph is a copy of the text on the original stone.

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Campbell’s wife, Elizabeth, was the sister of Patrick Henry.  After Campbell’s tragically early death in 1781, she married Gen. William Russell.  Now her remains lie near the foot of her first husband’s grave.

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Buried alongside Campbell is Francis S. Preston, the congressman and brigadier general who married the Revolutionary War commander’s daughter.  The Preston family were prominent in the history of southwestern Virginia, and were zealous defenders of Campbell’s memory in nineteenth-century disputes over the legacy of King’s Mountain.

After leaving the cemetery, we headed back to Abingdon and drove the Overmountain Victory motor route to Bristol.  We stopped along the way to see the historical marker near where John Pemberton’s men mustered for the march to Sycamore Shoals.

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The Virginia segment of the trail passes through one of the most beautiful parts of Appalachia, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in the early history of the frontier.

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A fresh look at the Swamp Fox

From Parson Weems to Walt Disney, Francis Marion has attracted his share of myth-makers.  Scholars, on the other hand, have been reluctant to take on the Swamp Fox as a subject, at least in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  While Scott Aiken’s military appraisal of Marion appeared just a few years ago, students of the American Revolution have had no full biography since the work of Robert Bass (1959) and Hugh Rankin (1973).  The publication of John Oller’s The Swamp Fox is thus good news for readers eager for a fresh look at the South Carolina partisan.

It’s at best questionable whether Marion “saved” the Revolution, as the subtitle puts it, but Oller makes an effective case that his contribution to independence was significant, perhaps more so than that of any of the other partisan commanders operating in the South.  The diminutive Huguenot first saw combat as a provincial officer during the Anglo-Cherokee War.  With the outbreak of the Revolution he secured a position in one of South Carolina’s infantry regiments, participating in the 1776 defense of Sullivan’s Island and the disastrous Franco-American attempt to retake Savannah in 1779.

It was in the aftermath of the fall of Charleston in 1780, however, that Marion began the partisan phase of his military career that earned him lasting fame.  Employing mobility and surprise to great advantage, hit-and-run strikes became Marion’s stock in trade.  While most of these engagements were small—”little strokes,” as Nathanael Greene called them—they dispirited Lowcountry Tories and British occupiers, disrupted enemy communications between Charleston and the backcountry, and funneled intelligence and supplies to the main American army.  They also forced Cornwallis to send detachments on wild goose chases in attempts to take his partisan corps out of commission.

Marion’s greatest triumphs came after Nathanael Greene’s assumption of command in the South.  Although Greene’s frustrations with partisan volunteers and militia are well known, he was far more attentive to Marion than Gates ever was, and his dispatching of Henry Lee to collaborate with Marion resulted in the fall of Forts Watson and Motte, important British posts connecting Charleston with the interior.  Oller does note those occasions in which Marion and Greene clashed.  Like most Carolina partisans, Marion was reluctant to see his men’s horses turned over to the regular army, and his exasperation with command reached such a point during the siege of Ft. Motte that he announced his intention to resign.  Oller also details Marion’s frustration with his squabbling and sensitive subordinates Peter Horry and Hezekiah Maham.  For the most part, however, he paints a portrait of a man who kept a viable volunteer force in the field against tremendous odds.  And while Eutaw Springs was the only large-scale battle of the Southern Campaign in which Marion participated, the performance of militia under his command in the first American line during that engagement impressed even Greene, who was often critical of irregulars’ conduct in open combat.

If Marion’s service with Greene is an exemplar of how regular and guerrilla forces can conduct successful operations together, part of that is due to the two men’s grasp of the link between waging war and cultivating public opinion.  Greene once wrote that harsh treatment of Tories was “not less barbarous than impolitick.”  Carrying on a war without restraint, he believed, was both morally wrong and counter-productive, since any insurgency requires the support of the population as well as the defeat of the enemy’s forces.  As Oller repeatedly demonstrates, Marion shared this desire to conduct the Revolution in a humane fashion.  He condemned the abuse of captured Tories, and did his best to prevent his men from pillaging civilians.  For a partisan officer engaged in the vicious conflict in the Carolinas, this was no mean feat.  (Indeed, Marion’s upstate counterpart Thomas Sumter used plundered slaves as recruitment bounties, a practice Marion opposed.)  This desire to ameliorate the war’s worst effects carried over into Marion’s civilian life.  In the South Carolina Senate, he allied with those seeking to soften implementation of an act confiscating the property of Tories.

Oller’s book is lean in its treatment of Marion’s life outside the Revolutionary War, but this is no fault of the author.  Information on Marion’s activities between the Anglo-Cherokee War and the Revolution is scarce, and as Oller notes, Marion was not an especially prominent state senator, and his legislative career thus left behind a rather unimpressive paper trail.  But there is enough in The Swamp Fox to give readers a sense of Marion as he lived outside the camp and battlefield.

In any case, it was in his capacity as a soldier that Marion made his mark, and when it comes to military matters Oller makes the most of the available sources.  He employs primary sources to good effect, including the pension declarations that have proved invaluable to students of the Southern Campaign.  His book also benefits from use of the fine secondary work on the war in the South that has appeared in the past few years.  As a result, Oller is able to shed light on the many Marion anecdotes and apocrypha left behind in the wake of Parson Weems.  While he approaches the Swamp Fox legend critically, Marion himself emerges from this study with his reputation for enterprise and patriotism intact.  “Unlike so many heroes with feet of clay,” Oller writes, “Francis Marion holds up to scrutiny” (p. 247).

Longtime aficionados of the Rev War in the South will appreciate the insights in The Swamp Fox, but Oller’s book is also accessible to readers who are new to the subject.  Informed, illuminating, and engaging, it’s a welcome addition to the literature on the battle for American independence.

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Foothills Conservancy acquires part of Cane Creek battlefield

More good news for preservationists and Rev War buffs!  A few years ago the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina initiated an effort to identify the location of the Battle of Cane Creek, where Charles McDowell’s Whigs faced off against Patrick Ferguson’s Tories in September 1780.  An archaeologist has linked the battlefield to a tract of land in eastern McDowell County, and the Foothills Conservancy has acquired the property.

Cane Creek wasn’t a large engagement, but it was an important prelude to the critical Battle of King’s Mountain.  McDowell’s men headed west after the Cane Creek fight to take refuge among the Watauga settlers of present-day East Tennessee.  Soon afterward, of course, refugees and overmountain settlers alike mustered and marched east for a showdown with Ferguson’s Loyalists.

I’m very glad to hear of the Foothills Conservancy’s success.  It’s a wonderful Christmas present for those of us interested in the Southern Campaign.

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