Tag Archives: Southern Campaign

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 visit to Campbell and his 400

East Tennesseans have more or less claimed the Battle of King’s Mountain as their own.  And little wonder.  The architects of the expedition lived in what’s now Tennessee, and the victory over Ferguson was the most dramatic and direct contribution that Tennessee settlers made to American independence.

But the Tennessee troops under John Sevier and Isaac Shelby weren’t the only men who gathered at Sycamore Shoals in September 1780 to march over the Appalachians.  About four hundred Virginians under the command of Col. William Campbell also made the trek to King’s Mountain.  These frontiersmen from the Old Dominion mustered at present-day Abingdon—Wolf Hills, as it was known in the 1700s—for the rendezvous at Sycamore Shoals.

Today you can stroll across the spot from which Campbell and his men set out at Abingdon Muster Grounds.  Having made the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail pilgrimage from Sycamore Shoals to King’s Mountain a few years ago, my cousin and I decided to wrap up the holiday season by hitting the trail’s Virginia leg.

A state historical marker stands across the street from the muster grounds.

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Hey, who’s a good boy?  He’s a good boy!  And you can find him standing under the interpretive signage at the site’s entrance.

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This festooned canine mystified us, but after a bit of Googling, I think it’s part of a local art project.  Check out the map of the Battle of King’s Mountain on his back.

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I was really looking forward to the exhibit in the small interpretive center at the muster grounds.  Alas, I neglected to call ahead and make sure they’d be open on the day we visited.  But seeing the place where Campbell’s men mustered was still worth the trip.

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Abingdon is justly proud of its history.  A downtown mural depicts scenes from the region’s frontier era, including Campbell and his militia’s involvement in the Revolution.

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Since we were in the area, we made the short drive up toward Marion, VA to see the site of Campbell’s home and his final resting place.  They’re a bit hard to find, and they’re also on private property.  If you decide to visit them yourself, be sure to obey the posted signage and be considerate of the folks who live nearby.

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Campbell and his relatives are buried in a small cemetery on a hill overlooking the Aspenvale monument.  After King’s Mountain, Campbell went on to lead backwoods riflemen into battle at Guilford Courthouse and then fought in Virginia under Lafayette before his unexpected death in August 1781.  Relatives moved his remains back to the site of his old home in 1823.  The slab over the grave is a modern replacement, but the epitaph is a copy of the text on the original stone.

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Campbell’s wife, Elizabeth, was the sister of Patrick Henry.  After Campbell’s tragically early death in 1781, she married Gen. William Russell.  Now her remains lie near the foot of her first husband’s grave.

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Buried alongside Campbell is Francis S. Preston, the congressman and brigadier general who married the Revolutionary War commander’s daughter.  The Preston family were prominent in the history of southwestern Virginia, and were zealous defenders of Campbell’s memory in nineteenth-century disputes over the legacy of King’s Mountain.

After leaving the cemetery, we headed back to Abingdon and drove the Overmountain Victory motor route to Bristol.  We stopped along the way to see the historical marker near where John Pemberton’s men mustered for the march to Sycamore Shoals.

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The Virginia segment of the trail passes through one of the most beautiful parts of Appalachia, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in the early history of the frontier.

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A fresh look at the Swamp Fox

From Parson Weems to Walt Disney, Francis Marion has attracted his share of myth-makers.  Scholars, on the other hand, have been reluctant to take on the Swamp Fox as a subject, at least in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  While Scott Aiken’s military appraisal of Marion appeared just a few years ago, students of the American Revolution have had no full biography since the work of Robert Bass (1959) and Hugh Rankin (1973).  The publication of John Oller’s The Swamp Fox is thus good news for readers eager for a fresh look at the South Carolina partisan.

It’s at best questionable whether Marion “saved” the Revolution, as the subtitle puts it, but Oller makes an effective case that his contribution to independence was significant, perhaps more so than that of any of the other partisan commanders operating in the South.  The diminutive Huguenot first saw combat as a provincial officer during the Anglo-Cherokee War.  With the outbreak of the Revolution he secured a position in one of South Carolina’s infantry regiments, participating in the 1776 defense of Sullivan’s Island and the disastrous Franco-American attempt to retake Savannah in 1779.

It was in the aftermath of the fall of Charleston in 1780, however, that Marion began the partisan phase of his military career that earned him lasting fame.  Employing mobility and surprise to great advantage, hit-and-run strikes became Marion’s stock in trade.  While most of these engagements were small—”little strokes,” as Nathanael Greene called them—they dispirited Lowcountry Tories and British occupiers, disrupted enemy communications between Charleston and the backcountry, and funneled intelligence and supplies to the main American army.  They also forced Cornwallis to send detachments on wild goose chases in attempts to take his partisan corps out of commission.

Marion’s greatest triumphs came after Nathanael Greene’s assumption of command in the South.  Although Greene’s frustrations with partisan volunteers and militia are well known, he was far more attentive to Marion than Gates ever was, and his dispatching of Henry Lee to collaborate with Marion resulted in the fall of Forts Watson and Motte, important British posts connecting Charleston with the interior.  Oller does note those occasions in which Marion and Greene clashed.  Like most Carolina partisans, Marion was reluctant to see his men’s horses turned over to the regular army, and his exasperation with command reached such a point during the siege of Ft. Motte that he announced his intention to resign.  Oller also details Marion’s frustration with his squabbling and sensitive subordinates Peter Horry and Hezekiah Maham.  For the most part, however, he paints a portrait of a man who kept a viable volunteer force in the field against tremendous odds.  And while Eutaw Springs was the only large-scale battle of the Southern Campaign in which Marion participated, the performance of militia under his command in the first American line during that engagement impressed even Greene, who was often critical of irregulars’ conduct in open combat.

If Marion’s service with Greene is an exemplar of how regular and guerrilla forces can conduct successful operations together, part of that is due to the two men’s grasp of the link between waging war and cultivating public opinion.  Greene once wrote that harsh treatment of Tories was “not less barbarous than impolitick.”  Carrying on a war without restraint, he believed, was both morally wrong and counter-productive, since any insurgency requires the support of the population as well as the defeat of the enemy’s forces.  As Oller repeatedly demonstrates, Marion shared this desire to conduct the Revolution in a humane fashion.  He condemned the abuse of captured Tories, and did his best to prevent his men from pillaging civilians.  For a partisan officer engaged in the vicious conflict in the Carolinas, this was no mean feat.  (Indeed, Marion’s upstate counterpart Thomas Sumter used plundered slaves as recruitment bounties, a practice Marion opposed.)  This desire to ameliorate the war’s worst effects carried over into Marion’s civilian life.  In the South Carolina Senate, he allied with those seeking to soften implementation of an act confiscating the property of Tories.

Oller’s book is lean in its treatment of Marion’s life outside the Revolutionary War, but this is no fault of the author.  Information on Marion’s activities between the Anglo-Cherokee War and the Revolution is scarce, and as Oller notes, Marion was not an especially prominent state senator, and his legislative career thus left behind a rather unimpressive paper trail.  But there is enough in The Swamp Fox to give readers a sense of Marion as he lived outside the camp and battlefield.

In any case, it was in his capacity as a soldier that Marion made his mark, and when it comes to military matters Oller makes the most of the available sources.  He employs primary sources to good effect, including the pension declarations that have proved invaluable to students of the Southern Campaign.  His book also benefits from use of the fine secondary work on the war in the South that has appeared in the past few years.  As a result, Oller is able to shed light on the many Marion anecdotes and apocrypha left behind in the wake of Parson Weems.  While he approaches the Swamp Fox legend critically, Marion himself emerges from this study with his reputation for enterprise and patriotism intact.  “Unlike so many heroes with feet of clay,” Oller writes, “Francis Marion holds up to scrutiny” (p. 247).

Longtime aficionados of the Rev War in the South will appreciate the insights in The Swamp Fox, but Oller’s book is also accessible to readers who are new to the subject.  Informed, illuminating, and engaging, it’s a welcome addition to the literature on the battle for American independence.

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Foothills Conservancy acquires part of Cane Creek battlefield

More good news for preservationists and Rev War buffs!  A few years ago the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina initiated an effort to identify the location of the Battle of Cane Creek, where Charles McDowell’s Whigs faced off against Patrick Ferguson’s Tories in September 1780.  An archaeologist has linked the battlefield to a tract of land in eastern McDowell County, and the Foothills Conservancy has acquired the property.

Cane Creek wasn’t a large engagement, but it was an important prelude to the critical Battle of King’s Mountain.  McDowell’s men headed west after the Cane Creek fight to take refuge among the Watauga settlers of present-day East Tennessee.  Soon afterward, of course, refugees and overmountain settlers alike mustered and marched east for a showdown with Ferguson’s Loyalists.

I’m very glad to hear of the Foothills Conservancy’s success.  It’s a wonderful Christmas present for those of us interested in the Southern Campaign.

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‘Liberty Mountain’ playwright on the history behind the show

Robert Inman, who wrote the script for the new King’s Mountain play I mentioned a few days ago, has a guest post about the campaign over at Appalachian History.

The play has its premiere this October, and after that it’s going to be an annual summer production.  Inman has evidently done quite a bit of writing for both theater and TV.  I’m hoping I get a chance to see the show.

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Carolina casting call

In a discussion about Turn, a fellow history blogger commented, “If I was king, I would create a series similar to HBO’s Band of Brothers based off John Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse.”  

As a Southern Campaign guy, I would love to see something like this happen.  The expansive canvas of a cable miniseries is perfectly suited to tell the story of the war in the Carolinas.

For the past week, I’ve been wondering which actors could play the major roles. The only one I could come up with is James McAvoy for Patrick Ferguson.  McAvoy is Scottish, he’s close to the age Ferguson was in 1780, and I think he could convey something of Ferguson’s intelligence and determination.

Other than that, I’m stumped.  I tried to come up with a suitable Greene, Cornwallis, Morgan, Tarleton, Sumter, and Marion, but I’ve got nothing.

I thought especially hard about who might play Isaac Shelby and John Sevier. There aren’t many thirty-something American actors working today who could sell me on the notion that a regiment of unruly frontiersmen would follow them across the mountains and into a hail of musket balls. Something tells me the Overmountain Men wouldn’t have been too impressed with Channing Tatum or Hayden Christensen.

Help us out here, Gordon: Who could really bring Nolichucky Jack to life?

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Using published primary sources

As handy as it is when you can access the same primary source material in different forms, it also forces you to make choices about the form you’re going to use.  For example, when I undertook this King’s Mountain project I knew that sooner or later I’d need to dig into the Cornwallis material at the UK’s National Archives in Kew.  I’m in no position for a trans-Atlantic commute, so consulting the original documents is pretty much out of the question.  Thankfully, this material is available on microfilm, so I assumed I’d be scrolling through them while seated in front of a machine.  (Some of Cornwallis’s papers appeared in a three-volume biographical work published in the nineteenth century, but these volumes don’t have everything I need.)

But just recently I found out about a comprehensive six-volume collection of Cornwallis’s papers relating to the Southern Campaign, edited by Ian Saberton and published by Naval & Military Press in 2010.  A nearby library has all six volumes, so it would be a lot easier for me to use the books than it would be to track down a repository with the microfilm and print what I need.  This would also allow me to maximize my research time and budget on the collections I can only access in manuscript or microform.

At this point, I’ve just about talked myself into using these books instead of the microfilm so that I can spare myself some hassle and devote more time and attention to other collections that are only available in manuscript or microform.  An annotated documentary edition also gives you the benefit of reading the editors’ insights into the documents, which can be extremely helpful.  I’ve found just a couple of reviews of the Cornwallis volumes.  One review was pretty positive; the other criticized the editorial apparatus but said little about the transcriptions themselves.  Since the transcriptions are what I really need, I’m not too worried about whether the annotations or introductions are extensive.

Still, it’s a trade-off.  As with any published documentary edition, the question basically comes down to whether the convenience of a printed and easily available published version of a manuscript source is worth being another step removed from the original documents.  Microfilm isn’t the original, of course, but at least you’re looking at images of the documents themselves.  And I’ll be relying on the Cornwallis papers pretty heavily, since I’m trying to incorporate more of the British perspective than other King’s Mountain studies have included.

These are the type of questions I’ve been mulling over lately.  Now I want to hear from you guys.  What do you folks think about using published editions of primary source material when the same material is available in microform?  As readers, does it have any effect on how you evaluate a scholarly work?  And for those of you who write history, do you prefer to use a printed documentary edition when one is available, instead of manuscripts or microform?

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