“Perhaps the greatest use of history is that it teaches you compassion for both sides and especially compassion for ordinary people caught up in great events.” -- Linda Grant DePauw
“Telling the whole truth means a readiness to blame as well as praise, to see the revolutionists of 1776 as all too human in many respects—not so different from the mix of politicians of mediocrity and ability, self interest, and vision who have presided over the nation's destiny in every generation since 1776. It also means a readiness to recognize greatness when that rarest of blessings emerges inexplicably from history's depths.” –Thomas Fleming
I have spent the better part of two years researching the American Revolution—nothing to do with my day job or PhD (perhaps that’s why I have plunged in so deeply). The subject is vast and still nearly every day I learn something new and astonishing, which I think, “Gosh, I wish I had learned that at school!” So in honor of 4th of July, let me share some of these amazing facts with you.
1. Joseph Plumb Martin
If you start reading about the American Revolution, chances are you will hear from, about, or see a footnote naming Private Joseph Plumb Martin. I first encountered him in David McCullough’s 1776 as one of a handful of authentic period voices giving eyewitness accounts of battles and soldiers’ lives (the others included Lt Isaac Bangs, Jabez Fitch, and Col. Loammi Baldwin). I then began encountering him everywhere else (Breen quotes him on youth of the Revolution having heard about the Stamp Act as children; the Bilbys quote him on Montmouth Court House cattle butchery; Fleming quotes freely from him for a stream of excellent details about Valley Forge). However, you should really experience the utter delight of reading the man’s own words; in fact, a good annotated version of his Narrative of Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings should be required reading to understand the American soldiery’s point of view. And what was that point of view? A down-to-earth, practical, impetuous, and sometimes downright hilarious one (even if his narrative was published many years after his experiences); I have totally fallen in love with his voice and feel an unaccountably urgent desire to meet him. If you’re looking for an emblem of the American soldiery, you could do far worse than Plumb Martin. Raised by his farming grandparents, the 15-year-old got swept up in the irresistible rage militaire of 1775. However, he was forbidden to join the army until 1776, by which time the rage militaire had dried up and Plumb Martin was in it mostly because of peer pressure. He soon came to accept being poorly equipped and mostly starved, out in all kinds of weather, and, at first, flying by through the skin of his teeth because of mainly non-existent training and discipline. He was not eager to re-enlist in 1777 for his second campaign, but economic necessity made soldiering the lesser of two weevils. Plumb Martin’s literary voice is engaging and his experience at the front line of many important events of the years 1776-1783 is second-to-none for period detail. He was also writing during a period in which Revolutionary deeds were taking on a mythic status, and his response was a picture of the stark reality.
2. Two Kettles Together
In my experience, information on Native Americans in the Revolution is ominously absent—I heard nothing about the Six Nations’ involvement until my specialized reading in the last few years. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps the complexity of the issues involved has made it difficult to summarize the situation in polarized rhetoric. As I have learned in books like The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Allies and the American Invasion, and The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, the confederacy of the Iroquois-speaking Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Tuscaroras (who joined in 1712) was beginning to be changed from the early eighteenth century, and its position of strength as a governing body shifted as response to European conflict became more and more inevitable. Neutrality was the preferred position of all of the nations at the beginning of the war (“It was contrary to their custom to interfere between parents and children” (Glathaar and Martin 85)). However, certain individuals—Joseph Brant, Samuel Kirkland, William Johnson—resonated within the changing interactions of chief warriors and sachems, causing the Mohawks and Senecas to abandon their neutrality relatively quickly and support the British and for the Oneidas, standing alone, to support the Americans. The really sad part is that this going out on a limb for untested allies is seldom acknowledged and wasn’t particularly rewarding after the fact. Nevertheless, books like The New York State Society of the Cincinnati: Histories of New York Regiments of the Continental Army and the Oneida Nation’s website are beginning to trumpet the achievements of Oneida patriots. Every school child knows about Paul Revere; it would be great if more people knew about Two Kettles Together.
Two Kettles Together (Tyonajanegen) was the wife of Han Yerry Tewahangarahken also known as Han Yerry Doxator, whose father was European (probably German) and whose mother was Oneida. He considered himself Oneida, and he and his wife had a sizable farm in Oriska near Fort Stanwix/Fort Schuyler in northern New York. During the Battle of Oriskany, Two Kettles Together rode into battle on the same horse as her husband, shooting off pistols while carrying two small children! They all survived, and Two Kettles Together, who seems to have been an accomplished rider, had the energy to relay the news of the battle throughout the valley. Her riding skills were in high demand as she relayed many messages during her husband’s tenure as a scout and warrior, compensated for his services by Gansevoort under Philip Schuyler.
3. No Quarter Tarleton
Watching The Patriot (2000), I could not believe such a caricatured villain such as Colonel Tavington (played with consummate sneering by Jason Isaacs) could have existed, and wrote him off as revisionist propaganda. However, it so happens that Banastre Tarleton, upon whom Tavington is surely based, was one of the occasional sadists of the period who reveled in committing war crimes. (I would accuse Captain William Cunningham, the man in charge of the Philadelphia POW prisoners, of equally appalling infamy, but Philip Young believes there is insufficient evidence.) “Almost femininely beautiful,” Tarleton was a proud and haughty dragoon who broke men, women, and horses with equal abandon (Hibbert 264). As if to further blacken his reputation in modern eyes, he was the son of a Liverpool slaver (according to Kelly and Smyer). He was 25 when he bought his own commission in the British Legion, gambling away his inheritance, having joined the army to evade his creditors. He put this outrageous ad into a Loyalist newspaper while in Philadelphia: “Wanted to live with two single gentlemen, a young woman to act in the capacity of a housekeeper, and who can occasionally put her hand to anything. Extravagant wages will be given and no character required. Any young woman who chooses to offer may be further informed at the bar of the City Tavern” (Fleming 40). He reached his apogee in the southern campaigns of the last years of the war, but he also faced off with the future “Light Horse” Harry Lee at a Pennsylvania tavern in early 1778.
However, let us not suppose that all the villains nor all the atrocities were British. The Simsbury Mines in Connecticut, where Loyalists (see below) were imprisoned can hardly be called a humane example, nor can the case of Lorenda Holmes, who, according to DePauw, when captured by patriots, was forced to take off her shoes and had a foot burnt with hot coals as being suspected of spying. Hibbert quotes Frances Wentworth when she describes patriots taunting Thomas Hutchinson’s family (see below): “They were so cruel as to say—If they could get the Governor’s fat child they would split him down the Back and broil him” (37). The barn massacre which Tavington in the film commits is closer to the atrocities perpetrated by American General John Sullivan’s slash-and-burn campaign against Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, and Cayugas. This culminated in a 1782 massacre at Gnadenhutten in Ohio where 96 Delawares who had converted to the Moravian faith (pacifists) were murdered.
4. “On the Banks of the Dee”
“Yankee Doodle” was not the only song to have come out the Revolution. Read a little, and the name William Billings begins cropping up, the composer of many beautiful hymns including the stirring “Chester” (his setting of “Bethlehem” is beautifully interpreted by Anonymous 4). However, what surprised me the most about Revolutionary music was how many of the recorded ballads are actually really funny. Scotsman John Tait wrote the really rather charming “On the Banks of the Dee” in 1775 when the conflict was supposed to be short-lived. (Though Robert Burns rightly pointed out that nightingales do not sing in bushes and are not native to Scotland. Everyone’s a critic.) However, the lovely song was ripe for parody, one of which was attributed Oliver Arnold, from the same year and whose choicest verses go:
‘Twas winter, and blue Tory noses were freezing,
As they march’d o’er the land where they ought not to be;
The valiants complain’d at the fifers’ curs’d wheezing,
And wish’d they’d remain’d on the banks of the Dee.
Lead on thou paid captain! Tramp on thou proud minions!
Thy ranks, basest men, shall be strung like ripe onions,
For here thou hast found heads with warlike opinions,
On the shoulders of nobles who ne’er saw the Dee.
I also think this parody (“Adam’s Fall/The Trip to Cambridge”) about George Washington is quite funny, though rather bizarre:
All prinked up in full bag-wig;
The shaking notwithstanding,
In leathers tight, oh! Glorious sight!
He reached the Yankee landing.
5. Disaffected persons
Disaffected persons. Loyalists. Royalists. Tories. When I was a kid, I didn’t know such people existed. I think it was poring over American Girls catalogues (I never owned a Felicity doll but I did have the paper doll) that I first encountered the idea. It’s absurd to imagine that in 1775, all the colonists in North America unanimously decided to throw off the yoke of British tyranny. John Adams estimated that only 1/3 of Americans were actively pro-patriot, with a further 1/3 as neutral and 1/3 as Loyalists. This figure has since been disputed, but in general terms, I think it is something that needs to be stressed more in education. Hindsight is 50/50, but for those Americans living in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, it was far from clear that breaking away from Mother Country was right, wise, or economically viable. From books like Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army and The American Revolution in New York: Its Political, Social and Economic Significance, it is obvious that a lot of side-switching, ambiguity, uncertainty, and backpedaling went on in places like New Jersey and New York—to all intents and purposes, a civil war. The somewhat anticlimactic label “disaffected persons” conceals characters as diverse as Thomas Hutchinson, last British governor of Massachusetts, beautifully revealed in biographical terms by Bernard Bailyn: “Night after night as governor he lay awake struggling to find the proper path for the authority he represented, worrying if he had the wisdom and the physical and psychic strength to guide the colony to peace” (61). It also can hide the harsher side of American retribution. As Breen notes (see The Association below), most local organizations tried to browbeat and coax their neutrals and Tories into collusion or submission, but not (generally) by means of violent force. The exception is illustrated in this shocking scene from 1775, also recorded by Breen:
Two men in Camden, New Hampshire in 1774 attacked a man named John Taylor,“ ‘beat & kicked [him] with Fists & Feet. The ride lasted fifteen minutes, leaving Taylor, according to later court testimony, ‘very much bruised.’ Before his neighbors grew tired, the ordeal took a particularly ugly turn—whether by accident or design, we shall never know—for a sharp edge of the fence rail cut deeply into Taylor’s groin, leaving ‘a mortal wound on the private parts of his body of the length of six inches [and] of the breadth of four inches.’ The precision of the measurement seems in itself curiously gruesome. With a short time, Taylor bled to death. . . . John Steele, Moses Jewell, Robert Blood Jr, and Jane Steele appeared before a New Hampshire court for killing a man who apparently had not supported the American resistance to parliamentary taxation with sufficient enthusiasm” (Breen 15). Taylor's tormentors escaped punishment. Think about that confronted with the seemingly innocuous punishment of tarring and feathering.
6. Howe vs André
Tomes have been expended on trying to measure the sluggishness of Sir General William Howe, infamously immortalized in the lines from “The Battle of the Kegs”:
Sir William he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a-snoring,
Nor dreamed of harm, as he lay warm,
In bed with Mrs. Loring.
Young makes the facetious comparison with Washington, saying that he and Howe resembled each other physically, died without heirs, and had bad teeth; recorded in the letters of Captain William Glanville Evelyn, within the arena of the English drawing room, Howe seems to have been a rather self-deprecating and even slightly charming conversationalist. As a commander, his strategy was opaque. Book after book cannot understand why he insisted on delay that ultimately lost him several would-be (sometimes crushing) victories.
He looks more frivolous still when one reads all the statistics on his grand going-away party in Philadelphia in May 1778, organized by one Major John André. There were boat parties, excesses of food, garments and costumes to make Philadelphia’s leading socialites look like sexy Turkish slave girls, cannon salutes, a tournament between the Knights of the Rose and the Knights of the Burning Mountain. (Not to mention the prison break that allowed 49 American POWS to fly the coop.) Swiss-born André at first glance seems like a historical hottie. (I understand in AMC’s Turn—no spoilers, please, I haven’t seen it yet—he is played by the suitably hunky J.J. Feild.) A good draughtsman, an occasional poet, unlucky in love, André was stranded behind enemy lines in the turn of Benedict Arnold in 1780 and was hung as a spy. You’d be forgiven for thinking of him as “poor André.” On the other hand, his cultured façade concealed a virulently anti-American, vindictive streak tempered by his time as a POW in 1775, feeling himself mistreated by boorish Americans. He therefore expressed no compunction during the Paoli “Massacre” and took his spy work seriously. (However, despite the fact that spy work in the eighteenth century was slow-moving and involved a lot of blundering around, I’m not convinced he was as good at it as he thought he was.) “Like many of his nation and class, he did not understand the rationale for the rebellion” (Rosenberg 22). Finally, when the British left Philadelphia in June 1778, he saw fit to steal books, scientific instruments, and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin from his host's home where he’d been staying. The conduct of a gentleman?
7. Rifle vs musket
Pretty quickly, it becomes apparent in Revolutionary War reading that muskets were inaccurate and Pennsylvania rifles somewhat more so. Muskets could be fitting with bayonets which rifles couldn’t, and some guys went around with spontoons. However, no one can give you a good reason why standard issue British muskets were called Brown Besses, and various sources disagree about the relative accuracy of muskets, rifles, and how many people on the frontier actually had them. So which was better? According to McCullough, the flintlock musket could get 3-4 rounds per minute, and according to the Volos, had a range of 100 yards (though the Bilbys suggest a 15% misfire rate was not uncommon!). The Volos continue that rifles had a range of 300-400 yards but riflemen needed more time to load. Most sources seem to conclude that the idea that expert rifle marksmen about the frontiersmen has been exaggerated. Captain William Dancey wrote of Americans, “No people can shoot black ducks better than they can but carrying firelocks and bayonets are a different matter . . .” (Fleming 53). In his book about British soldiers through the ages, Victor Neuberg notes that men would wake up with bruised shoulders from the recoil of shooting a musket up to 108 times in a battle. DePauw contends that regardless, guns were expensive and slow to load, so, many people defended themselves with squirrel guns, axes, hoes, scythes, and the like.
8. Mary Jemison
Mary Jemison (Deh-he-wa-mis) was not strictly a Revolutionary War personage as she was abducted on the New York frontier by Senecas during the French and Indian War. She was, however, still living with her Seneca family during the duration of the Revolution. It was only during the post-Revolution repatriation (in 1784 – a treaty of amnesty between the US and the Six Nations was negotiated and all prisoners were to be set at liberty) that she was, more or less against her will, released to live again with white settlers. As she explains, “I had got a large family of Indian children that I must take with me; and that if I should be so fortunate as to find my relatives, they would despise them, if not myself, and treat us as enemies, or at least, with a degree of cold indifference, which I thought I could not endure” (88). So although not strictly of the time period, I think she is a fascinating character and should be more well-known, if for her prophetic words than for nothing else: “The rise of ardent spirits amongst the Indians, and the majority of the attempts which have been made to civilize them by the white people, has constantly made them worse and worse” (50). DePauw reports that nearly ¾ of white captives preferred to stay with their captors. Joseph Kellogg (in Demos’ book about Deerfield, Massachusetts) speculates that one reason captives stayed was that young boys received much more liberty living with Native Americans—Puritan children were comparatively more restricted and more severely punished (DePauw suggests children were beaten before they could walk and talk). MJ married a Seneca man some years after her capture, with whom she was very happy, though her second husband, a man of great prowess as a warrior, seems to have imbued her with less affection. The tragic fate that befell her children was surpassed only by the villainy practiced upon her by unscrupulous “relatives” who tried to defraud her out of money and land in her elderly years. Her account of her life, generally considered to be reasonably accurate, and is reasonably unfiltered by a well-meaning but imbecilic editor, is a fascinating one.
9. The Association
Growing up, I had always assumed the American Revolution began in 1776. Somehow, the whole Lexington and Concord thing got mixed up in my memory with the Boston Massacre, and hostilities actually commenced some time around the Continental Congress. Er. However, the years 1774 and 1775 were vitally important to the formation of the rebellion, especially as concerned “the middling sort” (everyday people), which T.H. Breen brings into sharp focus in American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (which I reviewed here). Breen’s argument is that the local and relatively democratic formation of councils, the Committees of Public Safety, were at least as important to the Revolution as anything done by the generals in the war and the elitist lawmakers in Philadelphia. I was flabbergasted that I had never heard, until I read his book, of the Association. This was a body of articles released in 1774 self-policing what any self-respecting independent person could and should do with regards to manifesting boycotts and other measures of displeasure against Stamp Act-type taxation. Long before the Declaration of Independence, “Some colonists stopped drinking tea; others joined vigilante groups roaming the New England countryside” (Breen 81). Another surprise is the Boston Committee of Donations, which organized the distribution of gifts of food, money, livestock, and random stuff out to the suffering poor of Boston. “And perhaps the most surprising gift came from ‘the Aboriginal Natives of Christian-Town on Martha's Vineyard.’ The Indians collected more than two pounds sterling for people who might not have been so generous had the situation been reversed” (Breen 118).
10. The Washington enigma
McCullough and Ellis both presented a suitably nuanced portrait of George Washington in their books. A mass of contradictions, like any human being, and yet terribly attractive. Fleming further contributed to this sense of a man both ordinary and unique. The time has come for a general acknowledgment of a Washington removed from the monumental and mythic, whether that means exposing his faults or underlining his many moments of (human) genius. The many facts I would have liked to have known about Washington when I was younger include:
- Most referred to him during the War as “His Excellency”; Mrs Washington called him “The General” in public
- Born in 1732, we know very little about his relationship with his parents; he was estranged from his mother in later years.
- He taught himself to write.
- One of his favorite aides, Tench Tilghman, had a father, who, while taking no action, was a Loyalist and had been banished from Pennsylvania to Maryland.
- On May 4, 1778, at Valley Forge, he dined with Henry Knox at the artillery park and played “at wicket” with the artillery officers.
- His Seneca name was Conotocarius, “town taker” or “devourer of villages” because that was the name given to his great-grandfather, John Washington. It was hardly complimentary; he was called this because he had manipulated the law to swindle the Senecas out of their land.
- “Later on women would swoon at his appearance, but at this early stage [in his 20s] he struck them as awkward, even oafish, and paralyzingly shy” (Ellis 11).
- According to Joseph Ellis, Washington liked to tease Lafayette that the reason he hadn’t permitted his wife to come with him to America was the fear she would fall in love with an older man, namely Washington himself. (Never mind the fact that Lafayette ran out to join the romantic, dashing, Revolutionary cause without first informing his wife.)
- In 1783 Lafayette began urging Washington to free his slaves. However, Washington only did so as a posthumous act.
- In 1758 he fell in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his best friend, but nothing happened between them.
- “Appearances aside, he was an intensely passionate man, whose powers of self-control eventually became massive because of the interior urges they were required to master” (Ellis 38).
To find out more:
The American Revolution in New York: Its Political, Social and Economic Significance. Albany: Divisions of Archives and History, 1926.
Bailyn, Bernard. Faces of Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Bilby, Joseph G. and Katherine Bilby Jenkins. Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2010.
Breen, T.H. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.
Demos, John. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. London: Papermac, 1996.
Ellis, Joseph P. His Excellency George Washington. London: Faber, 2005.
Fleming, Thomas. Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2005.
Glatthaar, Joseph T., and James Kirby Martin. Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Allies and the American Invasion. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes. New York: Norton, 1990.
Kelly, G. Brian and Ingrid Smyer. Best Little Stories from the American Revolution. Naperville: Cumberland House, 2002.
Knowles, Nigel, ed. American Revolution 1776: Letters from New York, Boston, and London. Bewdley, Worcester: Star and Garter Publishers, 1998.
Martin, James Kirby, ed. Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin, 2nd Ed. New York: Brandywine Press, 1993.
McCullough, David. 1776: America and Britain at War. London: Penguin, 2006.
Moore, Frank, ed. Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution.  New York: Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution/The New York Times and Arno Press, 1969.
Neuberg, Victor. Gone for a Soldier. London: Cassell Publishers, 1989.
Rosenberg, Bruce. The Neutral Ground: The André Affair and the Background of Cooper’s The Spy, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Royster, Charles. Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Seaver, James E. Deh-He-Wa-Mis; or a narrative of the life of Mary Jemison, otherwise called the White Woman, who was taken captive by the Indians in 1755, and who continued with them seventy-eight years ... Also the Life of Hiokatoo and Ebenezer Allen, and historical sketches of the six nations, ... and other interesting facts ... by E. Mix. Devon: 1847.
Sypher, Francis J., Jr. New York State Society of the Cincinnati: Histories of New York Regiments of the Continental Army. Fishkill: New York Society of the Cincinnati, 2008.
Unger, Harlow Giles. Lafayette. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
Young, Philip. Revolutionary Ladies. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1977.
Volo, Dorothy Dennen and James M. Volo. Daily Life During the American Revolution. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Wallace, Anthony F.C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York: Vintage, 1972.
Wilbur, C. Keith. The Illustrated Living History Series: The Revolutionary Soldier 1775-1783. Old Saybrook CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993.