Tag Archives: Cowpens

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 miscellaneous Rev War items

First off, happy Cowpens anniversary.  Here’s a report on this year’s festivities.

While we’re on the subject of the war in the Carolinas, the marker for Pyle’s Defeat (or “Pyle’s Hacking Match,” as it’s more colorfully known) apparently needs some major revision.

During last night’s Republican debate, Newt Gingrich invoked Old Hickory’s backcountry boyhood: “We’re in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.”  That sums up Jackson’s attitude pretty accurately, I think, although throwing in the anecdote seems a little gratuitous.

Finally, Richard Ketchum, author of a number of popular books on the War for Independence, passed away last week.

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Over the mountains and back again

As promised, here are some highlights from the trip my cousin and I took along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, or at least a good-sized chunk of it.

We kicked things off with a visit to Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, TN.  The Overmountain Men assembled here to begin the march that culminated in Ferguson’s defeat at King’s Mountain.  This was my second visit, but it had been several years since I’d been there.  We scoped out the reconstruction of Ft. Watauga, site of a failed Indian attack in the summer of 1776.

Walking on, we came to the shoals for which the site is named.  The Overmountain Men crossed the river here.

Then we passed the open ground where the muster took place.  Before the militiamen set off, they heard a sermon by Rev. Samuel Doak, one of the most prominent ministers of the early frontier.  Sycamore Shoals was also the place where Richard Henderson bought the territory between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers from the Cherokee in 1775.

While we were in Elizabethton, I took the chance to swing by the original site of Ft. Watauga, which I didn’t get to see the last time I was there.  A monument atop a small mound in a residential neighborhood marks the location.

After snapping a quick photo, we set off along the OVNHT commemorative driving route, which approximates the path the Whigs took into the Carolina backcountry.  This was the first time I’d avoided the interstates on a King’s Mountain pilgrimage, and it was nice to see some different scenery zip by the window.

The NPS runs a small mineral and mining museum near Spruce Pine, NC along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the area where the Overmountain Men split into two parties to cross the mountains.  A monument on the grounds commemorates their campaign, as well as an Indian battle at Etchoe Pass in which Franics Marion participated.

The marker also refers to more recent military history: “It was the North Carolina and South Carolina and Tennessee troops—the 30th Division—in the World War that broke the Hindenburg Line.”  In the nineteenth century it was common for East Tennessee Unionists to invoke King’s Mountain when writing about the Civil War, but this was the first time I’d seen this theme applied to WWI.

In Burke County, we paid a visit to Quaker Meadows, home of Charles and Joseph McDowell, where Whig partisans from North Carolina joined the units from over the mountains.  Historic Burke maintains an exhibit in the old courthouse building, and also operates Charles McDowell’s 1812 brick home.  The house was closed, but we walked around the grounds and snapped a picture.

Just a stone’s throw from the house is a monument to the Council Oak, where the militia commanders got together to plan the next stage of the expedition.

The original tree is gone, and in fact this isn’t the exact spot where it stood, but a replacement now grows over the monument, right next to a steakhouse where I consumed enough salmon patties to founder an elephant.

The Whigs expected to find Ferguson in Gilbert Town, near present-day Rutherfordton, but by the time they arrived there the Scottish commander had begun his retreat southward.  We stopped there for the night, and then drove by the field where the militia camped, and I would’ve snapped a photo, but there was no space to pull off the road.

While we were in that neck of the woods, we made a brief side trip to Biggerstaff’s Old Fields.  The victors of King’s Mountain camped there with their prisoners on the night of Oct. 14, 1780, during their return march back into the mountains.  That evening, some of the Whigs conducted an impromptu trial and hanged nine of the Tories, three at a time.  The marker is in the middle of nowhere, and to get there you have to take  a series of winding back roads, each one narrower than the last.  There was barely enough space in the grass alongside the road to park the car.  Even in the daytime, it’s a somewhat eerie place, with that vaguely sinister, ominous vibe you sometimes pick up at isolated locations where awful things happened.  (We could hear, but not see, crows cawing in the surrounding trees. Maybe that had something to do with it.)

Back on the OVNHT, and just a short distance from Biggerstaff’s, is Brittain Church.  The Whigs passed by the site on their march southward and again on their return, leaving some of the wounded behind to recover.

For some of the injured militiamen, this was the last stop.  Thomas McCullouch was a lieutenant in Campbell’s regiment; mortally wounded, he died at Brittain Church, and his final resting place is in the graveyard behind the sanctuary.

There are other Rev War veterans buried in the same graveyard.  Most of them are militiamen from the Carolinas, but we also found a tombstone belonging to a Maryland soldier.

We skipped the next segment of the OVNHT, which crosses into South Carolina, in order to have enough time to walk the field at Cowpens, where the Whigs stopped on October 6 and joined up with additional men from the Palmetto State before moving on to King’s Mountain.  Just a few months after their victory over Ferguson’s Tories, some of them would return to Cowpens and help Daniel Morgan inflict another defeat on the British.

After taking in the battlefield, we drove a short distance to the town of Gaffney to see the gravesite of Col. James Williams, the controversial officer who suffered a mortal wound while leading a contingent of South Carolinians at King’s Mountain.

We spent the night at my usual motel near Crowders Mountain, and made the short drive to King’s Mountain National Military Park after a hearty breakfast.  I’d never been to the park this late in the year, and I was surprised at how much easier it was to appreciate the terrain with fewer leaves on the trees.  Here’s a view of the crest from Isaac Shelby’s sector of the battleground:

Lt. McCullough’s name, we noticed, was listed on the U.S. Monument.  Seeing a name on one of these engraved lists is a lot more poignant when you spent the previous morning looking at the grass growing over the bones of the man who possessed it.

Someday I’m hoping to go back and tour the McDowell House and fill in a few other blank spaces we had to skip, and of course I’ve still got to drive the northern leg from Virginia and the eastern leg which follows the route of Cleveland and Winston’s men to Quaker Meadows.  But this was a very satisfying trip, and something that had been on my bucket list for a long time.

If you’re interested in exploring the trail for yourself, let me encourage you to pick up the OVNHT guidebook by Randell Jones, published earlier this year, which includes maps, directions, photos, and background information on what you’ll find along the way.  We took a copy along with us and it came in quite handy.  I’d also recommend you take some sort of GPS device and print out the list of latitude and longitude coordinates of the waypoints along the route which is available here.

Oh, and speaking of my bucket list, we devoted the last day of the trip to another site I’d wanted to visit for a while.  This particular battleground isn’t a stop on the Overmountain Men’s route, bit it’s inseparable from the story of how they ended up at King’s Mountain.  I’ll talk about this place in my next post.

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The Battle of Cowpens, as presented by fifth graders

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens.  I thought some type of commemoration might be in order, so I went poking around online and found this video.  Some of the officers are a little shorter than average, but it’s more accurate than The Patriot.

I’m not sure where this school district is located, but they’re pulling out all the stops to get kids into the Revolution.  Good for them.

Some of you are no doubt horrified and outraged, and are primed and ready to inform us that this activity is not educational at all, that it fosters a sanitized view of combat and may in fact create a generation of callous warmongers.  Well, if you absolutely must, then you have my permission to click the comments link under this post’s title and moralize until you’re blue in the face.  Perhaps this sample from a Concerned Parent™ will give you some ideas to get started.  Keep in mind, however, that since we don’t know what additional context the teachers provided in the classroom and in other assignments, it’s just a wee bit presumptuous to assume that the only thing these kids took away from this was a notion that war is a barrel of laughs.  Okay?

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Foragers

Here are some feathered heritage tourists that I spotted at Cowpens National Battlefield a week ago.  They were picking goodies off the ground near where Daniel Morgan posted his third line.  I guess they didn’t read the signs prohibiting relic-hunting.

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“Why do you like coming here?”

Not too long ago a few other folks and I made a quick run out to two of my favorite places, King’s Mountain National Military Park and Cowpens National Battlefield.  Both are Rev War sites in northwestern South Carolina.  It’s a pretty short trip from where I live, and I try to make it at least every year.  It’s my favorite way of recharging my batteries when I get burned out or over-stressed, as I have been for the past several weeks.  

We’d walked the first part of the loop at Cowpens and were headed back toward the Visitor Center when a member of my little group asked me, “Why do you like coming here?”  It was a good question, and my inability to come up with an answer has been bothering me a little.  

 Whatever a battlefield is—a monument, a learning center, an artifact—it was once the scene of violence and bloodshed on a massive scale.  And yet I thoroughly enjoy visiting battlefields, as do thousands of other people.  In fact, when I visit these places of slaughter and misery, I can find myself in a state of almost blissful contentment.  There’s a contradiction here that’s a little disturbing, especially given the fact that I abhor the misuse and neglect of these sites.  

I suppose part of the reason I enjoy visiting battlefields could be the simple fact that it’s always nice to get outdoors and walk around a bit.  I spend most of my time reclining with a book, hunkered over a computer screen, or standing in a classroom, so I’m always eager for any excuse to get out and stretch my legs.  

 Also, it doesn’t hurt that many preserved battlefields are lovely places.  You can’t beat King’s Mountain for a nice outdoor stroll.  It’s a small ridge surrounded by gently undulating, wooded hills; think of a series of high ocean swells turned into solid ground and covered with timber.  Cowpens is pretty pleasant, too, a grassy field bordered by woods with a sandy path running down the middle.  I could name any number of other killing fields that are gorgeous spots: Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh.

Cowpens today, from the NPS website

It would be easier to associate these locations with death and destruction if they had that almost tangibly sinister quality that permeates some places.  Some historic sites do have this quality; Wounded Knee and Waxhaws both have a sort of forlorn atmosphere, even independently of the brutal events that took place at them.  Little Bighorn and Appomattox are lovely, but also appropriately melancholy.  The rocky mountain face near the southern entrance to Cumberland Gap can seem pretty forbidding, especially in the winter, but having looked at it several times a week for much of my adult life, I’ve grown very fond of it.  Still, I find that a visit to such ominous places can be as rejuvenating as a trip to any other historic site, so the question of why I enjoy battlefields so much remains.

The conclusion I’ve come to is pretty simple.  The main reason I like being in these places is because I can get my head around them.  I can understand the ground because I can understand what happened on it.  In the same way that some places are comfortable because you can link them to personal memories, a familiar battlefield can be comfortable because you can link them to names, events, and meanings.  You can make sense of the landscape by making sense of a moment in its past. 

Indeed, making sense of the past is basically what history is.  It operates from the same basic impulse that drives people to catalogue insects or build astronomical observatories.  When we encounter something that transcends the mundane business of everyday life, our instinct is to try to come to some kind of terms with it.  Past wars have that transcendence for me, and studying them is my way of coming to terms. 

Besides, if thousands of people find these places of slaughter more compelling than the modern world outside them, it just might reveal as much about the banality of that modern world as it does about anything else.

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Electric Map 2.0

A couple of days ago I posted about a news item that Eric Wittenberg mentioned on his blog.  To recap, the folks at Gettysburg National Military Park are thinking about reviving the Electric Map in the form of a film presentation.

Critics of the map said that it was too big and too antiquated, and I agree.  But I can also sympathize with those who miss seeing the battle play out in three dimensions, and I think that basic approach remains the best way to demonstrate the troop movements for visitors.  Given that fact, and all the uproar, I wondered in my post (as I’ve wondered before) why the NPS didn’t utilize fiber optic technology to create a smaller, modernized, smoother version of the Electric Map for the twenty-first century, such as the one at Cowpens National Battlefield.

I should’ve thought of this before I published that post, but I decided to see if I could find an online video of the Cowpens map, so those of you who haven’t been there could see what I was talking about.  To my surprise, I found one. 

The ex-museum guy in me gets all giddy over this sort of thing.  This baby is remarkably compact, located inside a tiny auditorium with a few benches.  There’s a separate map above it that depicts the overall strategic situation in the Revolutionary South, although in this clip it’s replaced with illustrations.

Now imagine one of these in the new visitor center at Gettysburg, along with a fiber optic wall map to show the invasion of Pennsylvania and Lee’s retreat back into Virginia.  I think it’d be pretty sweet, and visitors could still get that three-dimensional orientation that the Electric Map provided—without the bulk and noise.

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