Tag Archives: American Revolution

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:

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

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Grand French Battery:

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

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Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:

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Site of the French artillery park:

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An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:

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The Victory Monument:

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

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

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

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…but the effects of the originals are still evident:

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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David Armitage on the Declaration of Independence at UT

If you’re an early America aficionado in the Knoxville area, you’ll want to stop by the University of Tennessee’s Black Cultural Center at 4:00 P.M. on April 8th.  David Armitage will be presenting the 2015 Milton M. Klein Lecture, “The Global Impact of the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. Armitage is Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Harvard, Affiliated Professor in the Harvard Department of Government, an Affiliated Faculty Member at Harvard Law School, and Honorary Professor of History at the University of Sydney.  His books include The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year), The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (winner of the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award), and Foundations of Modern International Thought.  He is also co-author of The History Manifesto, a New Statesman Book of the Year.

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$200 for the 200th anniversary of John Sevier’s death

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the honor of serving on the board of the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association.  GJSMA supports the programming and operations at Marble Springs State Historic Site, Sevier’s final home in Knoxville, TN.

This year marks an important anniversary in Tennessee history.  It’s the bicentennial of John Sevier’s death.  To commemorate the occasion, GJSMA is undertaking a special fundraising initiative for 2015, called “$200 for 200.”

We’re asking folks who love history, museums, and Tennessee’s heritage to make a $200 donation to support our programming, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Sevier’s death.  Donors who make this special bicentennial gift will be recognized on our $200 for 200 web page, and will also receive these benefits for one year:

  • Free site tours for two adults and our children
  • Free admission for two adults and four children to our special John Sevier Days event in September
  • 10% off gift shop purchases
  • Discounts for our special workshop events
  • A discount on site rentals

It’s a great way to support a fantastic historic site and do something meaningful in recognition of an important Tennessee anniversary.  If you’d like to join our $200 for 200 effort, you can donate via PayPal at the Marble Springs website or send a check to Marble Springs, P.O. Box 20195, Knoxville, TN 37940.

I know that a lot of you folks who read the blog appreciate Tennessee’s history and its historic places, so I hope you’ll consider a donation.  Thanks!

A gathering at John Sevier’s Alabama gravesite in 1889 before his reinterment in Knoxville. Tennessee State Library and Archives (http://tnsos.org/tsla/imagesearch/citation.php?ImageID=4259)

 

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

Why the dramatic license in ‘Sons of Liberty’ is a problem

Most people realize, when they’re watching a dramatic work based on some historical event, that they’re not getting a history lesson.  And by this point, I think it’s dawned on most viewers of The History Channel that their chances of seeing historically edifying programming on that network are comparable to their chances of seeing a beluga whale while vacationing in Montana.  Why, then, is the total disregard for accuracy in Sons of Liberty such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because a heck of a lot of people who watched Sons of Liberty while under the impression that they were having an educational experience.  This is not my assumption.  This is a fact.  I know this is the case because I was scrolling along on Twitter while I watched the miniseries, looking at tweets with the #SonsOfLiberty hashtag.  I saw a lot of tweets decrying the show’s misrepresentations, but I saw as many if not more tweets from people who were totally psyched about how much they were “learning,” about how they wished schools would screen the whole thing for students, about how they were getting more information out of the miniseries than they ever did in their history classes, and so on.

Actually, when I first wrote this post, I’d embedded a few dozen of these tweets to prove how pervasive this sense of the series as an educational experience really was.  Since it occurred to me that your average Twitter user probably doesn’t want some blogger to cite him as an example of somebody who mistakes entertainment for edification, however, I decided to leave them out.  So if you want to get a sense of what I’m talking about, just search Twitter for #SonsOfLiberty and the word “learning” or “school” and you’ll find plenty of examples.

It’s worth taking another look at the disclaimer on the series website:

SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please read the Historian’s View section on history.com/sons.

I’m glad for the statement the series is “historical fiction,” but the rest of the disclaimer’s language obscures more than it clarifies.  The series doesn’t “capture the spirit of the time” when it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of British authority in the period leading up to the war.  It doesn’t “convey the personalities of the main characters” when it depicts Hancock as a reluctant dweeb, Gage as a sadistic tyrant, and Sam Adams as a brooding young heartthrob.  And it certainly doesn’t “focus on real events that have shaped our past” when the sequences portraying these iconic events—the destruction of Hutchinson’s house, the Boston Tea Party, Revere’s ride, the firefight at Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill—bear little relation to what actually happened.

In fact, of all the iconic “high points” that figure in the series, I can’t think of a single one depicted accurately enough to be suitable for use even as a visual aid in a classroom.  Some historical films take liberties with chronology and characters, but at least have the virtue of providing a compelling and reasonably useful enactment of particular events.  I’m thinking of the siege of Ft. William Henry in Last of the Mohicans, the O.K. Corral shootout in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, and the final attack sequence in Glory.  But what point would there be in showing your students Sons of Liberty‘s take on Lexington Green when the whole thing seemingly takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, with British officers torturing and executing wounded minutemen?  Or screening Paul Revere’s capture when he takes on a whole group of redcoats who have him at gunpoint, like Chuck Norris in a tricorn hat?  Or the Boston Tea Party scene, with Whigs decked out in Lord-of-the-Rings-style orc war paint?

If anything, the short notices aired during commercial breaks, in which The History Channel reminded viewers to log on to the show’s website for the facts behind the story, might have made the whole thing worse.  Viewers who visited the site might have gotten some useful information, but for the many who didn’t, the mini-commercials for the website only lent the whole thing an air of credibility it didn’t have.  Hey, if there’s a companion website with commentary from historical pundits, the show must be pretty legit, right?

Perhaps the liberties taken with the material wouldn’t trouble me so much if the show ran with a disclaimer at the top of every hour, reminding viewers that what they were seeing was fictionalized and only loosely based on real events and people.

In any case, the fact that so many Twitter users took the show as a learning experience indicates that The History Channel still carries an air of authority and authenticity, whether the network’s brass want it or not.  Since that’s the case, they really need to approach their (increasingly rare) historical programming more seriously.  If you want to be nothing but another TV network, fine.  But don’t pretend to be anything else.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory