Tag Archives: Revolutionary War

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Several generations of Ramseys are also buried here: Francis…

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J.G.M….

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…and young Arthur.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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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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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$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