Tag Archives: Revolutionary War

Last stand of the Regulators

Alamance Battleground had been on my bucket list for many years, so I stopped by for a visit on my way back from a research trip a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a small site, but its story is very important to the history of the eighteenth-century backcountry

Settlers in the North Carolina uplands had a great deal to be upset about in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  Underrepresented in the provincial legislature, they were also subject to exorbitant taxation and fees by corrupt local officials who were, in the words of Richard Beeman, “as feckless, venal, and larcenous a lot as existed anywhere in America.”  Exasperated backcountry farmers—”Regulators,” as they called themselves—responded by breaking up courts and engaging in some of the same resistance tactics that seaboard colonists were employing against British taxation.

The revolt came to a head at Adamance, where a force of approximately 2,000 armed Regulators faced off against just over 1,000 militiamen under the command of Gov. William Tryon on May 16, 1771.

Here’s a view from near the Regulator lines, facing toward the position taken by Tryon’s men.

And here’s another, this time facing the Regulators’ position from the opposite side of the field.

After trading volleys with Tryon’s militia, the Regulators broke.  At least nine men died on each side (Tryon’s losses may have been higher).  The governor hanged one prisoner in his camp nearby; six more went to the gallows in Hillsborough the following month.  One of the condemned men appears on the plaque affixed to this monument, which was originally placed at the Guilford Courthouse battlefield in 1901 and moved to Alamance in 1962.

The fact that a monument to the Regulators’ defeat once sat on North Carolina’s largest Revolutionary War battlefield is significant.  Early chroniclers referred to Alamance as the “first battle of the American Revolution,” with determined farmers standing up to a tyrannical government headed by a royal appointee.  This monument, dedicated in 1880, identifies the combatants at Adamance as “THE BRITISH AND THE REGULATORS,” although the men in Tryon’s ranks were the Regulators’ fellow colonists.

The actual relationship between the Regulators and the Revolution was more complicated.  The rebels had indeed defied a royal governor.  But a good part of the blame for their predicament lay with the eastern Carolinians who dominated the colonial legislature and kept backcountry concerns marginalized in provincial politics.  And it was just such men who, calling themselves Patriots, led the protest movement against imperial taxation.  When the Revolutionary War broke out and these easterners looked westward for support, many backcountry citizens were still nursing grievances from the Regulator dispute.  The same thing happened in South Carolina, which underwent a separate Regulator movement in the 1760s.

The Regulation wasn’t a dress rehearsal for the Revolution.  Instead, it made the Whigs’ task of mobilizing the backcountry more difficult when war with Britain came.  As a result, both Carolinas went into that war divided, and British armies would find some of their most zealous supporters among the backcountry colonists that seaboard Patriots had antagonized.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Upcoming symposium on the Tennessee frontier and the American Revolution

The East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville is hosting a really cool event on Saturday, April 21.  It’s a half-day symposium focused on the American Revolution on the Tennessee frontier, co-sponsored by Marble Springs, Blount Mansion, and the Department of History at UT.

It’s right up my alley, so I’m delighted to announce that I’m one of the speakers.  My presentation will deal with the ways settlers in the Tennessee country sought alliances with and protection from fellow Revolutionaries outside the region.  Here’s some more info:

The American Revolution created the United States of America. Tennessee’s rich history is linked to the very founding of our nation. Access to frontier lands and control over Appalachian territories were key factors that caused the Revolution. The Battle of King’s Mountain involved prominent frontier settlers such as John Sevier. The peace treaty that ended the war also paved the way for Tennessee to become the 16th state in 1796.

The History Department at the University of Tennessee is partnering with local organizations to make possible the first ever American Revolution on the Tennessee Frontier symposium. The event will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018 from 9am to noon at the East Tennessee Historical Society. Speakers from the Blount Mansion, the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Marble Springs State Historic Site, and the UTK History Department will talk about the Battle of King’s Mountain, John Sevier, William Blount, the Cherokee, and much more. The event is free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be served.

9:00 AM–Opening Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department
J. Tomlin, UTK History Department, “No Popery, No Tyranny: The Episcopacy Crisis and the Origins of the American Revolution”

9:30 AM–Lisa Oakley and Cherel Henderson, East Tennessee Historical Society, “The Revolutionary War through Artifacts and Family History”

10:00 AM–Michael Lynch, UTK History Department, “Declaring Dependence in Revolutionary Tennessee”

10:30 AM–Samantha Burleson, Marble Springs State Historic Site, “Marble Springs, Last Home of Governor John Sevier”

11:00 AM–Dr. Julie Reed, UTK History Department, “Willstown: Cherokee Casualty or Creative Adaptation of the American Revolution”

11:30 AM–David Hearnes, Blount Mansion, “William Blount: The Revolution and Politics”

NOON–Closing Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department

This event is free, and they’ll be providing food and drinks.  I hope to see some of you there!

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A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

My guest post on manliness and the frontier Revolution at AoR

My contribution to Age of Revolution’s series on the Rev War in Indian country is now online.  If you’re curious about the kinds of questions I’ve been investigating for my dissertation, there you go.  I’m using gender to make sense of the Revolution on the Appalachian frontier, and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.

I’d like to thank the editors of AoR for inviting me to participate.  Some of my favorite historians wrote pieces for this series, so it was a tremendous honor.

And I apologize to all you folks for the scarcity of new posts here of late.  I’m trying to get a chapter knocked out, so I haven’t had much time to do anything online except tweet.  I’ll try to get back in the swing of things.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Turn to the books

So Turn: Washington’s Spies has run its course, and now you’re itching to know more about the history behind the show.  Allow me to recommend some reading material.

I should note at the outset that this is a very Turn-centric selection.  In other words, it’s not a well-rounded reading list on the American Revolution.  This is intended mainly for those of you who are relatively new to the whole Rev War aficionado thing and want to start out by learning more about the people and events depicted in the series.

First, though, let’s take a look at some general histories of the era.  My favorite overview is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.  It’s the most comprehensive and up-to-date single-volume book on the Revolutionary era available.  If a narrative approach to the Revolution’s origins and military campaigns is more to your liking, try Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause.  I think Middlekauff is better on the run-up to the war and the actual fighting than he is on the Revolution’s social dimensions and its aftermath, but Glorious Cause is still well worth a read.  I’d also recommend two books by John Ferling: A Leap in the Dark for the Revolution’s political history and Almost a Miracle for the military side of the story.  And Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution is a concise overview of what was at stake in the struggle for independence, as well as a distillation of an influential and insightful scholar’s life work.

Okay, now for books that deal directly with the show’s subject matter.  Turn is all about espionage, and when it comes to Revolutionary spycraft, you can’t do better than John Nagy, author of George Washington’s Secret Spy War, Invisible InkSpies in the Continental Capital, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy.  Of course, you can’t do a list of Turn-related books without mentioning Washington’s Spies, the story that inspired the series.

The most famous Revolutionary to put in an appearance in the series was the commander of the Continental Army.  Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency is a great introduction to Washington and the qualities that made him exceptional.  John Ferling’s First of Men is also quite good and remarkably balanced; in fact, Ferling has written a number of fine books on different aspects of Washington’s life and career.  Both the one-volume abridgment of James Thomas Flexner’s biography and Ron Chernow’s life of Washington are also good reads.  Robert Middlekauff covers the general’s rise to fame and the war years in Washington’s Revolution.

One of the reasons Benedict Arnold’s treason shocked so many Revolutionaries was the fact that he had been one of the most revered Patriot commanders.  James Kirby Martin’s Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered examines the course of his career before he sold out to the British.  Flexner’s The Traitor and the Spy covers Arnold, André, and the plot to hand over West Point.  Peggy Shippen Arnold is the subject of a popular biography by Stephen Case and Mark Jacob.  Another controversial Continental commander who appeared in the series was Charles Lee, the subject of recent biographies by Phillip Papas and Dominick Mazzagetti.

On the British side, the Queen’s Rangers figured prominently throughout the show’s run.  Check out Donald Gara’s history of the unit.  War on the Run by John F. Ross is an engaging look Robert Rogers’s exploits, but it’s mostly focused on the French and Indian War.  While members of the British high command didn’t make too many appearances in the show, I also recommend The Men Who Lost America for a sense of the challenges imperial officials and generals faced in subduing the colonies.

What about Turn‘s African American characters?  Gary Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth is a great and very concise overview of the Revolution’s impact on black colonists, both slave and free.  Douglas Egerton’s Death or Liberty is also handy, and Benjamin Quarles’s The Negro in the American Revolution is a classic that’s still worth a read.

Another classic work that will give you some insight into the experiences of women like Mary and Anna is Liberty’s Daughters.  Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers also deals with women’s participation in the struggle for liberty.

For life in the Continental Army’s camps and hospitals, Caroline Cox’s A Proper Sense of Honor is a very valuable work by a historian whose death was a tremendous loss to scholarship on the Revolution.  And I’m a huge fan of Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War, a fascinating look at how young officers like Tallmadge understood their own service and sacrifices.

Turn also featured some of the war’s most important campaigns and battles.  Barnet Schecter’s The Battle for New York deals with the city that was ground zero for many of the early episodes.  In the first season, Tallmadge is unconscious during the attack on Trenton; you can catch up on what he missed by reading David Hackett Fischer’s splendid book Washington’s Crossing.  For Monmouth Courthouse, Joseph Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins’s work is a good place to start, and if you want more detail, Fatal Sunday is outstanding.  The British invasion of Virginia in 1781 is the subject of a brand new book, and Jerome Greene’s The Guns of Independence is a thorough examination of the Siege of Yorktown.

One final recommendation.  The series didn’t shy away from the Revolution’s uglier aspects.  For an examination of the war’s dark, violent, and bloody side, check out Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence.

If any of you Rev War buffs have other Turn-related books you’d like to recommend, let us know in the comments.

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A conversation about my research at the David Library

While I was wrapping up my residential fellowship at the David Library of the American Revolution last month, DLAR librarian Katherine Ludwig and I sat down for a chat about my research.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/226309860″>Meet the Fellows: Michael Lynch</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/davidlibrary”>David Library of the Amer Rev</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

And here’s Kathy’s interview with Craig Bruce Smith, another DLAR fellow who I had the pleasure of meeting while I was staying there.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/226312603″>Meet the Fellows: Craig Smith</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/davidlibrary”>David Library of the Amer Rev</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

My time at the DLAR was by far the most fruitful and enjoyable research experience I’ve ever had.  If you’re a scholar working on a Revolutionary era project, I strongly encourage you to pay them a visit.

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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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