Tag Archives: backcountry

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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Does “Appalachian” history have a start date?

I’ve been using the term “Appalachia” in my dissertation.   The people I study lived in present-day East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.  That’s Appalachia by just about any contemporary reckoning, so it might seem like a no-brainer.

The tricky part is that I’m writing about the Revolutionary era, and nobody really called it “Appalachia” in the eighteenth century.  It’s not that the word wasn’t around.  In fact, “Appalachia” is one of the oldest European place-names in the U.S.  It comes from a sixteenth-century Spanish transliteration of the name of a village in Florida, later applied to the mountainous area to the northward.

The Watauga River, which (depending on what time period you’re talking about) may or may not be in Appalachia. Bee Cliff River Slob [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

But “Appalachia” as a common name for the mountain South only dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Americans formulated the idea of the region as a culturally distinct unit.  In an eighteenth-century context, it’s anachronistic.

Does that matter?  The point of language is to communicate, and when we use words with meanings everybody knows, it saves a lot of trouble.  But language doesn’t just ascribe intended meanings to things.  It also reinforces the unintended meanings and associations that accumulate around words like barnacles on pier pilings.  And the term “Appalachia” has many such associations.

Eighteenth-century observers did think of Appalachia’s white settlers as set apart in some respects, but they didn’t use the term “Appalachian” to do so.  Whereas nineteenth-century commentators thought of a culturally distinct and isolated region contained within the U.S., eighteenth-century observers emphasized its geographic position at the back end of British America.  That’s reflected in the terminology they used.  What we consider Appalachia would have been “the backcountry” or the “back parts.”  I use “backcountry” a lot in my dissertation, but I don’t think it’s totally synonymous.  It’s a more slippery, generalized term that applies to more than just the mountainous South.

Some eighteenth-century observers referred to white settlers in East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia as “back water men,” or said that they lived on the “back mountains” or “western waters.”  These phrases reflect the same sort of Atlantic vs. western orientation as “backcountry” and “back parts.”  They emphasized the fact that these settlers lived on the western side of the mountains, where the rivers flowed toward the Mississippi.  These terms are more specific than “backcountry,” but also narrower than “Appalachia.”  There were plenty of whites settled in the Appalachian backcountry who weren’t “back water” men.

Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for an eighteenth-century equivalent to “Appalachia” at all.  If people didn’t think of the mountainous South as a distinct region at the time, perhaps I’m just buying into the nineteenth-century myth of Appalachia by trying to conceptualize it as its own, unique thing.

Then again, there’s something to be said for staking a claim for Appalachia in an early American context.  A lot of historians who specialize in the region focus on the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.  Applying the term to the Revolutionary era reminds people that the tumultuous events of that period mattered profoundly in the mountain South.  Rather than agonizing over whether it’s anachronistic, maybe the best approach is to appropriate it for historically informed purposes.

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“Insult and indignity”

You’re probably aware that a video which apparently shows a group of Marines urinating on enemy corpses in Afghanistan has been getting a good deal of attention lately.

Is there any possibility that we can connect this incident to some obscure bit of Revolutionary War trivia?  I’m glad you asked. Supposedly, in the aftermath of the Battle of King’s Mountain, some of the victorious Patriots did the very same thing to the body of Maj. Patrick Ferguson, the Scottish officer who commanded the Tories encamped on top of the ridge.

Ferguson's final resting place. Image from National Parks Traveler

Assuming it happened—I’ll get to that issue in a second—what could have prompted the militiamen to do such a thing?  Backcountry militia weren’t too scrupulous about observing the niceties of military convention, but relieving oneself on the corpse of the enemy commander still seems a little extreme.  In the eighteenth century, the bodies of dead soldiers often received callous treatment, but that generally wasn’t the case for officers, as Caroline Cox explains in her examination of life in the Continental Army.

In trying to account for the Whigs’ behavior, some commentators cite a proclamation Ferguson issued to rally the backcountry Tories when he discovered that the militiamen were on his trail.  It read in part as follows: “The Backwater men have crossed the mountains; McDowell, Hampton, Shelby, and Cleveland are at their head, so that you know what you have to depend upon.  If you choose to be p—d upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.”  According to this line of thinking, the Whigs who urinated on Ferguson’s body were indulging in a bit of poetic justice.  What insult could be more fitting than to urinate on the body of a man who warned Carolinians that they’d be “p—d upon forever and ever” if the Whigs prevailed?

Interestingly enough, this most inflammatory part of Ferguson’s circular got watered down in later accounts. Many nineteenth-century historians who quoted it altered “p—d upon” to something more palatable to a genteel audience.  J.G.M. Ramsey and Lyman Draper changed it to “degraded,” while Washington Irving used “trodden upon.”

If you ask me, the question of what might have prompted the victors of King’s Mountain to urinate on Ferguson’s corpse is probably moot, because I can’t find any eyewitnesses who said it actually happened.  As far as I can tell, the oldest source that mentions any desecration of Ferguson’s body is a 1787 book by Banastre Tarleton, the controversial young officer who commanded the British Legion. He wrote, “The mountaineers, it is reported, used every insult and indignity, after the action, towards the dead body of Major Ferguson, and exercised horrid cruelties on the prisoners that fell into their possession.”  Tarleton wasn’t there, but he could have gotten the details from some of the defeated Tories, since many of them escaped during the march northward and made their way back to British-held territory.

None of this is to say that it couldn’t have happened; the aftermath of the Battle of King’s Mountain was notably ugly, even by the standards of the nasty partisan war that erupted in the Carolina backcountry.  Through some combination of rage, confusion, and ignorance, the Whigs continued to fire into the ranks of the surrendering Tories as the battle wound down, and during the march away from King’s Mountain they continued to plunder, beat, and slaughter their vanquished enemies.  Loyalist newspapers printed accounts of the horrors the prisoners endured, including letters from those members of Ferguson’s outfit who were lucky enough to survive the ordeal.  The controversy over treatment of the prisoners made it all the way up to the armies’ commanders; Cornwallis complained about the Whigs’ behavior in a letter to his American counterpart, who responded that if Patriots were committing outrages against British troops, they were simply giving as good as they got.

Whether or not those outrages included urinating on the body of a fallen officer, the whole episode demonstrates that debates over soldiers’ conduct in wartime aren’t new, and it probably won’t stop when the seemingly endless War on Terror finally grinds to a halt.

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Patriots and plantations

While the relationship between England and her American colonies was turning sour, a Scotch-Irish settler named William Bratton migrated to northwestern South Carolina, where he became a local officeholder, a slaveowner, and a colonel in the militia.  His sons were substantial men in their own right; one of them, a doctor, built his own house a stone’s throw from the one where his father had lived, and later descendants continued to build on and farm the land near William’s original farm.  This collection of homes, plantations, stores, and taverns acquired the name “Brattonsville” from the family that prospered there for several generations.

Today Historic Brattonsville is an outdoor museum and living history site, one of a chain of York County’s Culture and Heritage Museums, which range in subject matter from local history to the environment.  By preserving the homes and stories of successive generations of the Bratton family, the site allows visitors to explore the history of upper South Carolina from its settlement in the pre-Revolutionary years through the late nineteenth century.  I’d always missed it on my trips through that part of South Carolina, so this time I made it a priority, and I’m glad I did.  It’s worth seeing.

The Revolutionary backcountry is only part of the story told at Brattonsville, but it’s probably the one most familiar to many of the history enthusiasts who visit.  In fact, the property includes the site of a small but significant Revolutionary War battle in which William Bratton participated.  In the summer of 1780, as partisan militia rallied to harass the British who occupied South Carolina, a detachment under the command of the despised Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion came to the Brattonsville area looking to arrest Whig leaders.  One Loyalist threatened William Bratton’s wife with a reaping hook, an incident re-told in many accounts of the backcountry war.  On July 11 Huck and his men camped at James Williamson’s plantation, just a short distance from Bratton’s house.  Bratton himself was one of the militiamen who surprised them there the next morning.  It was a short fight, lasting only ten or fifteen minutes, and there were only a few hundred men involved, but it cost Huck his life and was one of the first Whig victories following the fall of Charleston.  It’s the kind of thing that would have made a rollicking sequence in The Patriot, and indeed some scenes from that movie were filmed at Brattonsville.  (Let me add a plug here for the thoroughly-researched book on Huck’s Defeat by historian Michael Scoggins, who works for Culture and Heritage Museums.)

There are about thirty historic or recreated structures to see at Historic Brattonsville, many of them original to the Bratton plantation but others moved from the surrounding region to illustrate life in upper South Carolina from the 1760’s to the late 1800’s.  They include William Bratton’s Revolutionary-era house, the large two-story “Homestead” built by his son, a couple of later homes inhabited by other Bratton descendants, some representative examples of backcountry cabins, various plantation outbuildings and barns, and a few slave dwellings.  The staff raise animals here, most of them breeds that were once common on American farms but are now quite scarce.  Adjacent to the buildings are several trails that wind among lovely woods and ponds and past the Huck’s Defeat battleground.

It’s largely a self-guided tour.  At the visitor center you pick up a walking map with information about the buildings, and a small exhibit area and orientation film help to provide some context for what you’ll be seeing.  A couple of costumed guides escorted me through the Homestead house, but you’re mostly on your own, and you can therefore wander around the grounds and through the open structures at your own pace.  The map and some signage provide the basics on names, dates, and uses, but you don’t always get the rich depth that a guided tour provides, although I enjoyed the freedom to explore.  The orientation room in the visitor center has some background information and a few display cases, including props from The Patriot.  I’d advise you to visit Brattonsville’s website, which has more detailed background material on the larger buildings and the Bratton family, so that you can get the most out of a visit.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many interpreters onsite.  Brattonsville has an active and exemplary living history program.  On the day I visited the focus was on antebellum slavery, and there were both lectures, demonstrations, and scripted reenactment scenarios, all of them very well-done.  The personnel were knowledgeable and enthusiastic; they fielded questions with ease, and the visitors were interested and having a good time.  The interpretations weaved the stories of the Brattons and their enslaved laborers together very deftly.

There is plenty to take in, but most of it’s within a fairly compact area.  To check out the buildings and hit the Huck’s Defeat battleground took me a little over two hours.  If you decide to hike the longer nature trails, expect to spend quite a bit longer, because they’re quite extensive.  The visitor center has a small shop, stocked mostly with gift and decorative items, but there are a few southern history books on sale, too.  It’s an extremely pleasant setting, in a rural part of York County; visiting would be an enjoyable experience even for people who aren’t particularly interested in history.

What I find compelling about this site is the fact that it encompasses such a panorama of South Carolina history—the frontier backcountry, the furious partisan fighting of the Revolution, the antebellum years, the Civil War, and the troubled era that followed.  Because the Brattons lived there during all these events, their story is essentially the story of the Carolina backcountry, from its settlement to the late 1800’s.  Historic Brattonsville is a fine example of preservation and interpretation, combining an intimate portrait of one family with the grand sweep of more than a century’s worth of history in one of the most fascinating regions in America.  Put this site on your itinerary when you travel to western South Carolina.


Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites